As their name suggests city cars are great for the city. They’re perfect in their home environment of tight streets, nipping through gaps in the traffic and grabbing that tiny parking spot that nobody else can fit into. The thing is, you can take the city car out of the city but can you take the city out of the city car? I decided to take the SEAT Mii Sport (full review here) to two of England’s most challenging roads to see if it could handle life in the big, wide world.
Destination – Lake District
The plan was to take the little Mii on a 300 mile road trip to the Lake District and tackle two of the most notorious mountain passes in England. The warm-up act would be the formidable Wrynose Pass, followed a few miles later by the Hardknott Pass, the second steepest road in Britain with gradients exceeding 1 in 3. To get there the Mii would have to cope with 60 miles of dual carriageway and another 80 miles of mixed roads through the Yorkshire Dales. Enough to identify any flaws in its character!
I headed out onto the A1 for the dull northbound part of the journey but with my MP3 player plugged into the Mii’s auxiliary socket a few choice tunes helped the miles to pass more quickly. At Harrogate it was time to leave the A1 and head towards Windermere. Here the pace slowed but the Mii was in its element, darting between traffic lights and roundabouts with enthusiasm and making light work of the stop-start traffic.
Finding The Wrynose Pass
Eventually signs were telling me I had arrived in the Lake District and so it was time to find the Wrynose Pass. The Mii’s portable sat-nav screen was set for Little Langdale, a village located near the start of the pass. The sat-nav took me from Windermere towards Ambleside and then west on to the A593. After about three miles there is a right hand turn, followed about a mile later by a left-hand turn into Little Langdale. Now the fun really starts!
As you head out of the village the tight and twisting road is lined by high walls, trees and bushes. Visibility is severely restricted so speeds are low and you never know what’s waiting around the next bend – horse, cyclist, coach or the occasional crazed local in an off-roader looking to crush all tourists.
After a few miles, and a couple of near-misses for the Mii’s wing mirror, the road opens up and the ascent begins. Here you get a taster for the stunning views as you ascend with waterfalls to your right and steep drops to the left. Squeezing past oncoming cars is a nervous time when you realise just how steep the drops are and how close you are to the edge but the Mii’s compact shape is perfect in this environment. You’d have to be very brave or very foolish to bring a people carrier or large car up here .. and yet there were loads of them out here, squeezing past one another with millimetres to spare.
Once you reach the summit of the Wrynose Pass you have the option of stopping to admire the Three Shire Stone that marks the meeting point of the three old counties of Cumberland, Lancashire and Westmorland. The parking space was packed so I decided to carry on and start the descent, where I was greeted with a stunning view of the Duddon valley floor and the river meandering alongside the road.
The valley floor is the fastest part of the route but you’ll still be lucky to get past third gear. You need to tread carefully as the damp tarmac takes you over blind crests but at least visibility is better, allowing you to spot oncoming cars earlier and duck into passing places where necessary. The Mii feels great on this stretch, back in its element on the tight and twisting tarmac, the suspension doing a great job of handling the rough tarmac.
- The Hardknott and Wrynose passes can trace their roots back to 2AD, when the Romans built the 10th Road to link their supply fort in the coastal village of Ravenglass with their garrisons in Ambleside and Kendall.
- Wrynose actually means ‘pass of the stallion’. Would you try to climb the pass on a tired, old nag?
- The ruins of Hardknott Fort lie on the western slope of the Hardknott pass, built by the Romans between AD120 and AD138 .
- The War Office used the area for tank practise during the Second World War … and trashed the remains of the Roman road.
- The pass was tarmacced in 1955. That’s how it’s been ever since and in some areas you really can tell that the road is over 65 years old.
Tackling The Hardknott Pass
When you hit the tiny village of Cockley Beck at the western end of the valley it’s time to tackle the big one – the Hardknott Pass. This is not for the faint of heart as it combines more narrow roads, switch-back hairpins, blind crests and some very steep slopes with the odd bit of very rough tarmac thrown in for good measure. The ascent is so difficult that the pass remains closed during the winter months because ice can make the bends incredibly treacherous.
The Mii spent most of the ascent in first gear, but then so did every other car I saw. It might only have 74bhp and 70 lb/ft but its 1.0-litre engine never felt stressed. Noisy, yes, but the Mii was easily up to the task of climbing the Hardknott’s steepest gradients and it was huge fun threading it around the tight hairpins. Even the hardy mountain sheep stared in awe as the little Spaniard scampered up the slope with ease.
At the top of the Hardknott I stopped again to admire the views. Officially the summit is 1,289 ft above sea level and on a clear day you can allegedly see the Isle Of Man to the West. Sadly on this occasion the peaks were surrounded by low cloud but the view back to the east was clear and I could see the traffic snaking its way along the thin ribbon of tarmac that the Mii and I had just driven.
The western slope of the Hardknott is not as difficult as the east but there are two very tight and steeply banked hairpins. At one point I sat and waited while another car struggled to make the turn, inside wheel turning rubber into smoke as it struggled for traction. The little Mii just shrugged and whizzed round with no hint of scrabbling or wheelspin.
On the western side you can stop to visit the ruins of Hardknott Fort or you can carry on into the village of Eskdale and from there it’s a short run to the coastal town of Seascale.
I decided to skip the seaside and turn around, heading back up the way I came to tackle the Hardknott and Wrynose in reverse. It’s a great way of seeing the views that were only glimpses in the rear view mirror before.
I stopped again on the Hardknott summit for another chance to soak in the scenery. Normally it would be incredibly quiet up here but the last weekend of the summer holiday sees a steady procession of cars and minibuses out here, and the air is filled with the sounds of hard-pressed engines climbing the pass. With hindsight it wasn’t the best time to come but at least the crowds can’t ruin the glorious views out here.
If you’re tempted to try the Wrynose and Hardknott passes then make sure your car is in good working order. The brakes and clutch will be in for a hard time and automatic gearboxes will be under a lot more stress than normal. If your car’s engine is prone to overheating then get it sorted before you try it, because if you have any problems you won’t be able to call for help – the mobile signal is very weak out here.
If you have a choice then go up in something small, like the SEAT Mii, simply because you won’t have to hold your breath so much when oncoming cars squeeze past your car. Its shorter wheelbase also makes it easier to navigate the tight bends.
In fact the SEAT Mii coped admirably well out here. For a car that’s designed to nip around city streets it found it remarkably easy to tackle the slopes of one of England’s toughest roads. Call it a city car? That almost seems like an insult to the Mii after this little adventure.
Wrynose & Hardknott Tips
- Do take your camera.
- Do make sure your clutch and handbrake are in full working order, you will need them on the slopes.
- Do take a sarnie and flask of coffee. There are few nicer places to sit and eat your lunch.
- Don’t visit on public or school holidays, it’ll be packed with walkers and cyclists.
- Don’t expect to get a mobile signal.
- Don’t visit in winter or if the weather’s really bad, the warning signs are there for a reason.