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Driver's Quest - The Tail of the Dragon

One of America's legendary roads in a VW GLI

Trace Hance
Nov 18, 2016
Photographer: Brittany Hance

Everyone has his or her ideal road trip. For some it might be a Bugatti Veyron on the Autobahn for others, a 1961 Ferrari 250 California Spyder on the Stelvio Pass. At my college campus car meet, I asked some of my friends, "What would be your ideal road trip?" Most said it would be in something classic on a paved mountain road adventure with some friends or a loved one. But what if you're bank account simply won't allow for that exotic car in that epic locale? Say you have just enough to get away to an almost as exotic road with a car that even a mere mortal might be able to afford just on the other side of a college degree. Could that trip be nearly as satisfying without being so financially crippling?

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Growing up, one of my fantasy road trips consisted of driving a car from Florida to The Tail of the Dragon to explore every twist, turn, dip and rise of the famous American back road. It's almost 500 miles just to the starting line of the Dragon. The thought of spending between six and eight hours inside a car built for nothing but attacking twisty roads seemed like a bad idea. On the other hand, a dedicated highway cruiser didn't seem like it would be much fun once I had driven all that way either. Clearly, a compromise must be found; something that would deliver big on driving enjoyment with plenty of speed but still comfortable and confidence inspiring. Sounds like a sports sedan would be just the thing, but let's not forget that value proposition—enter the GLI you see here.

2017 Volkswagen Jetta
$22,175 Base Model (MSRP) 25/35 MPG Fuel Economy

The Tail of the Dragon was first paved in the early 1930s, but its recorded history dates back to the 1700s when it was a trail for hunters and trappers. Before that, it existed as a Native American trading passage. It was designated US129 in 1934 but was still only lightly traveled and only appreciated by locals until the 1990s when the secret spot was publicized by a motorcycle enthusiast Doug Snavely. At the time, not everyone appreciated Snavely's efforts to bring attention to the sleepy country road, although the past 25 years have certainly been financially successful for the businesses that cater to the motorcycle and car enthusiasts who make regular pilgrimages to worship the Dragon.

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The attraction of the road is the 318 curves in just 11 miles. The Dragon starts in North Carolina and runs north into Tennessee along the edge of The Great Smoky Mountains National Park. It's beautiful country. The downside? It's a skinny mountain road with no guardrails. Needless to say, this can be a dangerous experience and many car and bike enthusiasts have lost their lives on this road. The hotel clerk told me this, "Don't underestimate the dragon or she'll bite yah and bite hard."

The Tornado Red Volkswagen Jetta GLI you see here is an ideal example of the kind of car you want to run the Dragon. You might want something with big power numbers and enough lateral grip to make Christiaan Huygens blush. These are the types of cars that end up decorating the trees lining the Dragon. The GLI will allow plenty of fun, while delivering the predictable yet capable handling an unfamiliar twisty road requires. It is also great to have something so capable if events don't necessarily go exactly as planned. Some of you may have already guessed that not everything went exactly as planned by looking at the photos.

The GLI has a 2.0L TSI DOHC turbo inline-four cylinder engine, independent sport suspension, and an Intelligent Crash Response System that all comes standard. The GLI infotainment system is pretty user friendly and does everything you'd expect short of calling out rally notes. The only thing that really threw me off about the interior was the sunroof dial. I couldn't figure out why someone would want to just crack his or her sunroof open? If you're going to open it, why not open it all the way, right?

Since I couldn't bring all of you along sitting shotgun, I'll hopefully do the next best thing. Below is my daily driving journal from the time the gleaming red VW was left in my care all the way to the end of my adventure and heading home.

Day 1

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I received the GLI this afternoon. Wow, the tornado red is rather stunning. During my first drive, the car felt very smooth and comfortable around town. The weight of the steering is a hair to light, but overall the steering response is very good. The car isn't twitchy on the street like a sports car, but it isn't lazy and squishy like a Nissan Altima. The car falls into a weird, "Spunky yet Civil" category of it's own. It's almost like it has a personality of it's own... I might name it.

Day 2

It's departure day and I am just now looking at the weather for this trip. Crap, a decent sized winter storm is moving through northern Georgia and heading east. Sadly, my photographer, Brittany (who's also my sister), and assistant, Katie, are stuck in Asheville Virginia because of the snow. Courageously, they started their journey from Washington, D.C., and have been driving through the weather to make this story happen. The plan is to meet at the hotel whenever they make it. Assuming they make it.

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After about seven hours of driving, I've named this GLI Debra. Debra is that plucky office co-worker who is always professional but likes to party on the weekends.

The same is true with the GLI; it's a professional business sedan that's got some fun in it. You'll probably only use it as your daily driver, but that's OK in this car because it's enjoyable as it. The Debra analogy aside, on the interstate the car rides smoothly and comfortably. I was comfortable the whole drive north. I'm really starting to like Debra.

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Day 3

In the morning, I tried to go to one of the towns along highway 129 to get coffee and do a quick photo-sighting lap before my photographer arrived. As I was leaving the hotel, I proceeded to turn right out of the divided-highway intersection since the light was green and there was no traffic. I noticed one on-coming car turning onto Highway 129 North at the same time. The moment I turned my head back to the front of the car, all I heard was BBBEEEEEEEEEEEEEPPP! The driver of the other car had their steering at left full-lock and was sliding right for the GLI's B-pillar. I reacted, continued to turn right although harder than planned, the on-coming Toyota just missed me. Unfortunately I ran out of land. My last though was, "Oh shit, not this car, NOT DEBRA!"

There was a loud, sickening thud and the car came to an unceremonious stop. My first thought was, "I wrecked it." But I noticed the car was still running—no broken windows, no airbags, no fenders bent... what the hell happened? I hoped it sounded worse than it was. Maybe I imagined the thud. Maybe it was the other car. I killed the ignition and got out to take a look, still a little stunned. I followed my tire tracks and one pointy rock had saved me from diving down into a 5-foot snow-filled ditch, catching the car by pushing my passenger front tire off the rim. It messed up the alignment as well. I was able to get the tire remounted and the alignment reset; Debra was as good as new.

In the blink of an eye, I went from doing my first road trip story to doing my last road trip story. This was hands down the best outcome given the situation.

Brittany and Katie finally arrived around noon. It's time to do the photo shoot, hopefully this time sans black ice. We go for static shots and watch over our shoulders for wayward Toyotas with terminal ice-induced understeer.

Day 4

Considering my near-career-death experience yesterday morning, I figured I would wait till today to drive the dragon. I was trying to let some of the ice melt a little while my nerve solidified, before trying to hustle the car around a few corners of the Dragon. Considering I'm heading back south today, an overly cautious sighting drive north on 129 would be good idea. It's kind of like the warm-up lap before the start of a race. The first three miles of the Dragon seemed like it hadn't snowed. It was just gone. But then about every one and a half miles there would be these dense patches of snow and ice. And it would always be at the apex of a bowl-like hairpin. This continued for the rest of the drive. Fortunately, I did get to hustle the car on the way back through that 3-mile clear stretch of road.

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On the ragged edge, the car likes to push on corner turn-in and the brake pedal gets a little longer. But backing off from the ragged edge and just quickly driving the car, it's stable and controllable from corner entry to exit. Moderate squeezes into the brake pedal, rather than harsh jabs, got rid of the brake fade. I'm pretty sure the understeer is intentionally dialed in from VW for safety reasons, but it's worth noting.

My thoughts on the Dragon are less quantitative and more contemplative. The road snakes and winds through the landscape, living up to its mythical name. Corners are blind, and even in a car like the GLI, it is easier to outrun your sightlines long before the car's performance. There are legends of this road being haunted. If I were stuck in some sort of afterlife holding pattern, I can't think of many better places to spend time. There are also rumors that this is magical land, that it has the power to take hold of people and possess part of their being—I believe it. I'll be thinking about this place while planning my next trip.

Now it's time to head back to Florida.

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In hindsight

It isn't always about the distance that makes a journey special. I still would love to go on a European adventure. I would still love to carelessly stack up countless miles on an exotic or a rare classic, but I'm not sure it would have been a much better experience. The Tail of the Dragon is a collection of turns that is truly world class. I might have caught it at the wrong time, but the magic is always there. I will be back and it might be in another car of similar performance. Hopefully Debra won't be jealous.

By Trace Hance
2 Articles
Driver's Quest - The Tail of the Dragon
Tech Spec
2016 VW Jetta GLI
Base price: $27,740
Price as tested: $28,840
Layout: front-engine, FWD, five-seat, four-door sedan
Engine: 2.0L, 210 hp/207-lb-ft, turbo DOHC 16-valve I4
Transmission: six-speed dual-clutch
Curb weight: 3,200 lb. (mfr.)

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