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Perfect car journey

Car journeys are rarely the same, so how do you judge the perfect one? Is it about the route, the car, the people you’re with or something else entirely? Ben Webb muses on how to weigh up the driving experience.

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Perfect car journey

What is the perfect car journey?

“That's the most amazing road I've ever seen,” gasped an awe-struck Jeremy Clarkson, the former presenter of BBC's Top Gear, sitting in a gleaming Aston Martin DBS Volante and staring down at the Transfăgărășan Highway, high in Romania's Carpathian Mountains. “It's like every great corner from every great race track in the world has been knitted together to create an unbroken grey ribbon of automotive perfection.”

And he has a point. As the Aston's engine rumbles into life on the smooth asphalt that stretches in satisfying curves through the starkly beautiful landscape, it's hard to imagine a more delightful experience. But driving perfection – that unique sense of enjoyment you only receive when moving in a car – does not rely on the finest cars and the most sublime roads. A hit-list of Desert Island Drives is far more interesting – and democratic – than that. All you need is a car and somewhere to go. 

I've also been lucky enough to drive though beautiful mountains – Corsica, Morocco, Bosnia and Australia – and loved every minute. However, what about the thrill of driving with carefree abandon on a frozen Swedish lake? Or driving a friend's Citroën DS in Paris? Or chugging along the coast in a VW Kombi? Or, in poignant contrast, hitting terrible traffic, sweating, swearing, hitting the horn, raging at fate, but then, finally, against all the odds, getting to the airport with seconds to spare? What a feeling! The adrenalin, the victory... it has to be as good as winning a Grand Prix!

The perfect vehicle

There’s no doubt that the perfect drive demands a car with the right form and function, from huge and beautiful gas-guzzlers that transform a humdrum journey into a scene from a movie to sleek and silent electric cars that deliver efficient, guilt-free – and connected – transport.

Take the classic American road-trip: the open road stretching as far as the horizon, mesas, lonely gas stations, huge cacti and, of course, a country-and-western song on the crackling radio. The choice of car is essential because the journey itself is an aesthetic adventure, a backdrop for the other star ingredients such as travel companions, destination and musical score – a microcosm, no less, of life itself. A drop-top is ideal, a huge rumbling engine preferable, lots of chrome and white-walled tyres a clincher. A Fifties’ Chevvy, perhaps? Or the majesty of a gleaming Airstream?

But sometimes the car is secondary. On the sinuous and impossibly narrow roads of Italy's amazing Amalfi coast an Audi A1 Sportback, for example, was perfect. Compact enough to nip past oncoming traffic so we could enjoy the view – the dazzling Med, cliff-top villages and groves of over-sized lemons – rather than fear gridlock or an imminent prang. It was no place for a nine-seater Chevrolet Suburban.

Getting from A to B

Occasionally a perfect drive can be about the simple things, like getting from A to B at a vital time. Like 5am on a freezing and pitch-dark winter morning at Luton Airport. Grim for those returning from sunny holidays, but fantastic for me sitting in a warm car – in that moment, just about the cosiest place on the planet – waiting to give my daughter and her friends a chauffeur-driven and laughter-filled lift all the way home. 

Luton to London is hardly cruising through the Alps or along the Champs-Elysées, especially in the dark. The 50km distance is short enough to pose no challenge yet long enough to drag on. The chatter of happy, relieved and appreciative friends and family, however, made it a very special drive of its sort. Driving pleasure does not have to be selfish.

In fact, a perfect drive often does rely more on the right mindset than the right landscape or car. Commuting through busy urban streets can be a chore or, for the more thoughtful and mentally well-prepared, a rare opportunity to sit back and listen to a favourite song or podcast. Whether Antwerp or Zurich, the location is irrelevant. And there's more. By relaxing and allowing the body to move with subconscious ease – that satisfying choreography of foot, hand and eye co-ordination – it’s possible to reach an almost Zen-like calm when driving anywhere.

That's very good news indeed. The potential to enjoy driving is endless. Perfection does not rely on exploiting Formula One technology on the Transfăgărășan Highway – although that would be fantastic – but on learning to appreciate all the amazing experiences that driving can offer. And then doing it more often.

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