The fly-drive holiday is an increasingly popular option for visitors to New Zealand. It affords a flexibility for those who wish to explore the impressive landscape that NZ’s rather lacklustre public transport system just can’t offer. More importantly a driving holiday in NZ gives you a chance to drive on some of the most entertaining and scenic roads the other side of the ditch.
This particular drive is over five days and starts and ends in Christchurch. Traveling west from Christchurch, my route passes through Arthur’s Pass before heading south down the west coast to Queenstown. A short break in Queenstown is taken before heading north back to Christchurch directly through the guts of the South Island – driving through Lindis Pass and past some notable places such as Lake Tekapo.
It’s a route that flows through a variety of different road types, from flat open roads through to mountain passes and coastal highways. Being winter, conditions will also be variable with the possibility of closed roads and unexpected detours. Any car nut would be positively slathering with excitement.
Day 1: Christchurch – Franz Josef
The journey begins, but not without its disappointments. While I had reserved a Peugeot 307 2.0 litre HDi from Thrifty Car Rentals, I ended up with a base model Toyota Corolla from Avis. While whitegoods on wheels might be perfectly acceptable for some, any driving enthusiast is going to be disappointed with a car that's engine, transmission and handling can only be best described as mediocre.
The aim of the day is to reach the west coast before heading south until a decent town to stay in is found. The initial drive out of Christchurch is along W Coast Rd and isn’t all that exciting. Views include sheep, numerous police cars and a spectacular mountain range that fills the horizon out all front windows. We’ll be climbing that.
Road leading into Korowai Torlesse Tussocklands Park
The transition into tight bends and steep mountains roads is quite quick as we enter the Korowai Torlesse Tussocklands Park (try reading that on a sign). A stop at the top of the climb where Lake Lyndon lies allows us a chance to enjoy our first journey above the snow line, and a glimpse into Arthur’s Pass. The Corolla’s performance so far is acceptable. Although the engine lacks the torque to quietly climb the hills, the ergonomic positioning of the auto’s controls allows us to manually keep the four-speed box in second gear.
Looking towards Arthur’s Pass from Lake Lyndon
The drive beyond Lake Lyndon takes us back below the snow line and snaking along the valley through Arthur’s Pass. Whilst we initially get a chance to absorb the impressive views, the weather quickly changes, bringing strong winds, heavy rain and poor visibility. Not great for driving through a mountain pass. This quick change in conditions becomes a common trend of the trip.
Day 2: Franz Josef - Wanaka
After a night spent in Franz Josef, the drive continues south along State Highway 6. The rain continues to fall for the good part of the morning as friend and I visit the usual tourist attractions of Franz Josef Glacier and Fox Glacier. Both can be recommended as nice detours from the main highway, however if time is a limiting factor – Franz Josef Glacier is the pick of the two for the lush surrounding forests leading up to the glacier.
Further south along the highway as we head into Haast Pass, our Corolla’s flaws become more apparent. Excessive road noise on long stretches of coarse chip bitumen wears away at our energy, making any bend look enticing. The catch here is that any bend highlights the Corolla’s lack of dynamic ability; excessive body roll, a twitchy rear end and lack of grip all have us wanting for smoother, straighter roads.
Snow capped mountains surrounding Lake Wanaka
Our wants aren’t met. Although the roads do smooth out as we enter the run along Lake Wanaka, the corners continue. Just as well the windscreen’s big, because the view is amazing. The jagged mountains still have their snow-capped tops lit up by the now out of view sun, providing just the smallest amount of light to allow the lake to glow.
Day 3: Wanaka - Queenstown
The temperature hovers around the freezing mark as we head out of our overnight stop over in Wanaka. Today’s destination of Queenstown is just a little over an hour away. The drive takes us through a fruit-growing region with plenty of stalls to stop at for a quick snack, and then on through Kawarau gorge, famous for having the first commercial bungee jumping site, off the Kawarau bridge. Traffic between Wanaka and Queenstown is heavy, keeping driving enjoyment down and frustration high.
After arriving in picturesque Queenstown and not being able to find parking to go for lunch, an executive decision’s made to go on yet another mini road trip. We pick a road and follow it. A few kilometres along, light rain turns to sleet… and then to snow. As we’re enjoying the moment of our first snowfalls, a sight many hope to see on a trip to New Zealand approaches us: sheep on the road.
Glenorchy - Queenstown Rd
The road to Glenorchy, aptly named Glenorchy-Queenstown Rd, is reminiscent of parts of Victoria's Great Ocean Road. The only difference is that this particular route is now covered in a thin layer of snow. Not to worry, the view more than makes up for the inability to exploit a few corners. And when you get to Glenorchy? … well, the cold weather was great for a soup at the Glenorchy Café (GYC, on Wills St).
Day 4: Around Queenstown
Today was meant to be a day trip down to Milford Sound. Mother nature didn’t like that idea though and instead decided to snow us into Queenstown for the better part of the morning. That’s okay though, because it mean we were able to enjoy Queenstown at its best.
Mid morning allowed us the courage to don our jackets, jump into the car and see what we could find. We followed another route along Lake Wakatipu, this time heading south. The snow prevented speeds much above 50-60km/h, which along roads like this, is a real disappointment. We were lucky enough to have the skies clear up for us though, and with that – stopped in Kingston for some lunch.
Between Queenstown and Kingston
And here was the surprise of the day, the Corolla handled the snow brilliantly. Its skinny tires, lack of excess torque and insensitive throttle mapping all came together to make smooth progress on the snow and ice. Just as well, since the chains provided by the rental company were tangled and rusted in their container.
Day 5: Queenstown - Christchurch
Our final day on the South Island meant a drive back to Christchurch from Queenstown. Based on opinions from friends and family, we were expecting the drive to be close to 8 hours long. Reality proved it to be closer to 6 ½, including stops. The route back to Christchurch is just under 500km long and provides the most eclectic mix of road types and scenery of all the drives taken so far.
We exit Queenstown back through the Kawarau Gorge. At just after 7am, traffic is almost non-existent and the chance to enjoy the road’s corners is relished after Day 3’s not so involving drive along this road. The Corollas brakes hold up well as the road descends through tight corners to come out at Lake Dunstan, leading into the Lindis Valley. The Lindis Valley provides higher speed sweeping corners along the flat valley floor as we make progress towards the Lindis Pass.
Looking towards Omarama
The transition into the Lindis Pass is quite quick and dramatic. Clear roads turn to ice and the flat roads start climb. Although the roads are covered in ice, grit has been laid and safe progress is made without chains at speeds that the local constabulary would be happy with in school zones. It takes almost an hour to progress through the pass due to the conditions, but once again – the Corolla has impressed in conditions that are less than ideal.
Clockwise from top left: Looking to Lindis Pass, Icy Lindis Pass, Lake Tekapo.
As we exit Lindis Pass, we enter the flat Mackenzie’s basin. Extending about 100km, the vast, flat spaces of the basin are surrounded by mountains that tower thousands of metres above. The higher speeds along the straight roads take us past the turquoise coloured waters of Lake Pukaki, with its views of Mt Cook, and Lake Tekapo.
Exiting Mackenzie’s basin is through Burke’s Pass, the final challenge before the long stretches of country highway along the Canterbury plains take us back to Christchurch. Despite the frequent changes in elevation and mid-speed corners, Burkes Pass just doesn’t have the grandeur of Lindis Pass and proves a little disappointing. None the less, it’s our final good bye to the Southern Alps as we’re soon back in Christchurch.
Final Impressions: The Corolla
I have to give credit to the Corolla, it never let us down. It’s that impression of reliability on which this car’s reputation is built. Despite some obvious deficiencies in comparison to the competition; lack of ESP, lack of power, cumbersome gear box, uninspired handling (and I’m only naming those that immediately come to mind), it seems to reassert itself as fit for purpose in the simplest of ways.
Whilst it lacked grunt (100kW @ 6000rpm / 175Nm @ 4400rpm) and the four-speed auto was unwilling to down shift unless forced to, which was often, the 1.8 litre still managed to return a respectable 7.4 litres per 100km over the entire trip. No easy feat considering the mountains we climbed, and rather slow average speeds through snow and ice. The elevated ergonomic positioning of the shift gate also meant that manual control of the auto box wasn’t as much of an inconvenience as it could’ve been.
The handling could also be more entertaining. Varying degrees of understeer, lack of steering feel, body roll and slow turn in aren’t exactly fun. But these are things that can at least partially be attributed to the base model’s skinny tires. It’s those skinny tires though that cut through the snow in Queenstown and didn’t slip over the icy Lindis Pass.
Quality seems to be there in most places frequented by your hands. All stalk controls, HVAC, audio and gear controls feel solid and precise. However, large areas of dashboard and console were covered in hard, cheap plastic – causing very obvious rattles between two glove box lids that were rubbing against each other.
Conclusion? I can see why it’s popular. When faced with reality, most people do just want cheap and reliable transport, which the Corolla provides. For the rest of us that don’t enjoy trade-offs, I recommend shopping around.
Next time in Auto Route Josh tackles the USA's Route 66 in a legendary Mustang