BLOG: Shell #ExcitingDrives NO.1: Lexus GS 300h & A149 North Norfolk
Question: What constitutes #ExcitingDrives?
When Shell launched this modern viral campaign to promote "putting the fun back in driving" using their new friction-reducing, engine-cleaning V-Power Nitro+ unleaded and diesel performance fuel brand and asked Road Magazine to get involved... we put our thinking caps on.
A trip down the stunning Gorges du Verdon in Alpes-de-Haute-Provence – one of our favourite French roads – perhaps? Certainly exciting.
Or maybe a run across Northern France and into Belgium, to drive first Spa-Francorchamps and then over the border into Germany for a Ring trip? Definitely exciting.
How about the awe-inspiring Lake District passes trilogy – Hard Knott, Wrynose and Kirkstone? A thriller.
Then we got to thinking... #ExcitingDrives can come in many forms.
A drive can be exciting depending on who you do it with, what you get up to, what car you're driving, what you've got on the stereo and an infinite number of factors. It's not always about the quality of the road, or the driving itself. It can be about something more etherial.
And so, in a less obvious and more mystical choice, we chose to track our first #ExcitingDrives on not the greatest driving road, but one that always makes us excited – because of its intoxicating, unique, magical landscape and how it makes us feel... excited... to be alive.
The road is the 85-odd miles of the A149, aka, the North Norfolk "coast road" running from King's Lynn to Great Yarmouth, through some of the most charming coastal villages, rare wetland ecosystems and unspoiled countryside in the UK. It's a stunner... not necessarily for the driving purity, but the way it makes you feel. They say Norfolk is "the 1950's county" and this road is a bit of a step back in time.
Our car of choice in this smart, sensitive neighbourhood is the very swanky, very grown-up and very responsible, yet daring to be different new Lexus GS 300h, here in F Sport trim – coming dressed in the brightest possible F Sport white paint, with metallic black 19-inch rims, upgraded bumpers and front grille, rear spoiler and nice ally scuff plates, badges and trim.
The 300h is now the second full hybrid in the GS range and starts at £31,495, although our F Sport is a shade over £42,000 OTR. But boy, does it feel like that sort of money. Not only does is look marvellous from any angle, but the levels of luxuriousness are right up there. It feels expensive, looks expensive and drives expensive too – with its revised double wishbone suspension set-up, bionic brakes and state-of-the-art hybrid power plant, offering 178bhp from the 2.5-litre 16-Valve DOHC VVT-i petrol engine and 141bhp (105kW) from the electric motor. The combined output might 'only' be 220bhp and the claimed 9.2s to 62mph and 119mph top speed might not sound that impressive. But don't be fooled. The GS 300h is properly quick – with a relentless surge of poke, especially in Sport mode. And this huge, heavy luxo-barge is still capable of 56.5mpg (combined)... although our F Sport managed sub-40 mpg on test (mainly due to my enjoyment of its titanic torque thrust on the fast sections of the A149 and other Norfolk gems!).
Crawling out of King's Lynn with the holiday traffic (the A149 is best driven out of holiday season really, or at dawn or dusk) heading for Hunstanton doesn't fill us with excitement, but the GS – ticking along mostly in silent (bird song backed) EV, zero emission, zero V-Power-drinking mode – is a sublime and comfortable place to be, with BBC 6 Music locked on the DAB radio, pumping out fine tunes on the superb stereo aiding the mood.
The A149 starts dull, but gets better and better – passing the Queen's stunning Norfolk estate, Sandringham, before reaching the traditional beach resorts of Heacham (with its line of beach huts) and the 'cliffs' of Hunstanton, over-looking the wide expanses of The Wash (pictured below).
Beyond Hunstanton, you turn the Northern-most corner on the A149 and start heading East and the road transforms – narrowing, starting to twist and gently undulate, as you pick your way through the hedgerow-lined lane and start to enter the picture postcard flint cottage villages of first Holme-Next-To The-Sea and then Thornham, with the crab-lined creeks and bird-filled marshes to your left and open fields to your right. It's just stunning and the GS is soaking it up perfectly with its Jekyll & Hyde character – demolishing the fast sections between the villages in a blur of never-ending torque surge and gearless, hybrid power before standing on its nose and wafting silently through the villages in EV mode. Ace!
The feeling of isolation (especial off season), the massive Norfolk skies, the quintessentially Norfolk flint housing, windmills and churches whizz by – in meandering straights between the small towns, which just get better and better through Brancaster, Brancaster Staithe and onto the pine-tree-lined beach and country estate of Holkham... all of which are worth stopping at, for a walk or at many of the superb pubs and B&Bs dotted along the coast.
The five miles of Holkham beach are probably actually the most interesting stretch of road to drive, with a series of little S-bends and long, fast straights which the GS soaks up with gusto in Sport + mode (firming up the suspension, quickening the steering and providing max power). Then the A149 by-passes beautiful Wells-Next-The-Sea (well worth a drive in and look see), and cuts back South, inland a mile or two, before heading East again on fast, open, increasingly narrow roads with good, testing corners towards the beautiful bottleneck that is Stiffkey.
Then it's a blast towards Blakeney and its stunning little fishing harbour, with its superb crabbing creeks and wide expanse of open marshes – which the A149 again by-passes, but is well worth a stop-over, if only to buy some fresh shellfish or local artwork at the creek car park stalls.
After Blakeney, the road dips down into the Glaven Valley, then Cley Windmill beckons you into perhaps the nicest driving section of the route, heading across the marshes for Salthouse village (great fish and chips), onto fast heathland past Kelling and Weybourne and eventually into the shingle-beached town of Sheringham. Then the GS purrs into and through the faded Victorian splendour of Cromer and the road winds up higher off the marshes and onto the cliffs for the first time since Hunstanton, giving some cracking views out over the North Sea, before sadly ducking away from the sea for the first time and inland through the open countryside, onto some long, fast straights across the famous Norfolk Broads and eventually heading into Great Yarmouth. Time to get the hammer down... and hit 'Gee Yaar' for some well-earned chips.
But it's the 30-miles or so of the top Northern-most section – from Thornham to Cromer – that's where the real motoring road trip magic is. It's not the most dramatic drive, nor the most amazing views in the UK by any stretch, but there's something completely unique and utterly enchanting about this stretch of coast that's hard to put your finger on until you've been there.
One thing's for sure, this stretch of the A149 certainly qualifies for Shell's #ExcitingDrives campaign, especially with such a fine machine as a GS 300h to enjoy it all from. Pure escapism at its most peaceful and enjoyable best = #ExcitingDrives No.1
See all the images from our North Norfolk #ExcitingDrives on our Facebook page.