Tail of the  Dragon

The AutoSlash team loves cars and driving. Actually, we love all forms of transportation and a few of us even have motorcycle endorsements. One night last spring, I joked about a "need" to drive the Tennessee Tail of the Dragon -- an icon in bike culture -- in the worst possible rental car. What is the Tail of the Dragon? It's a stretch of road with 318 turns in 11 miles, following the contour available and creating opportunities for multiple tourist-oriented businesses. A scenic drive that requires a lot of focus with 29 turns per mile, I decided the "worst possible" rental car for the trip would be the easy-to-find 2017 Nissan Versa Note. And it was (remarkably) a blast!

About the Car

The vehicle is not only a 2017 Nissan Versa Note, the vehicle is the absolute-base S trim. The automatic transmission is rated at 109 hp @ 6,000 rpm with 107 lb-ft of torque @ 4,400 rpm. Of course, it's a Nissan Versa Note with a CVT -- it's difficult to ever imagine reaching 6,000 rpm without violating many laws and the help of a steep downgrade. There were zero optional features on this base level vehicle, hence the phraseology "absolute-base"; not even remote entry or power windows.

In fact, the vehicle shared many (poor) characteristics with the Fiat 500 the Enterprise franchise in Kirksville, Missouri once gave me (except the Versa's interior trim stayed in place). The tires were good, it eventually became a sunny day, and I timed my departure from Charlotte strategically to arrive at Deals Gap, North Carolina shortly after noon to give time for the overnight snow to melt. Another consideration was the day of the week, guessing that a non-holiday Monday would be light with fewer vehicles clogging up the roadways. And I would get to enjoy the fall foliage before more hazardous conditions were possible in the winter.

On Approach

While driving through the Great Smoky Mountains National Forest on the way to the Tail of the Dragon, I encountered my first Killboy truck. Killboy is one of the companies that photograph drivers on the Tail of the Dragon and posts photos online in the hopes that drivers will purchase those commemoratives -- the Tail of the Dragon is serious business! At least that prepped me to expect photographers standing on trucks later, and I was able to find my photos easily listed under the generous "Other Cars" category upon arriving at home.

Pulling into Deals Gap, I gathered some intel. For instance, I knew to expect three more photographers and zero police on the route; the knowledge of no police officers on the road may or may not have altered my driving behavior. So I hopped in the Versa and safely blasted my way across the border of US-129 into Tennessee and the start of the Tail of the Dragon. The entirety of the Tail of the Dragon is in Tennessee, although Deals Gap, NC somehow takes credit!  

There are many friendly (and not-so-friendly) dragons around.

About the Challenge

Before attempting the Tail of the Dragon, it's important to note a few critical facts:

  • It's remote, so there won't be many gas stations in route (and none during the 11 critical miles).
  • It's touristy, so plan your visit accordingly around weekends and holidays.
  • Cell phones really don't work, so don't do anything stupid.
  • If you do something stupid and you're on a motorcycle, contribute to the Tree of Shame.
  • The Tail of the Dragon may be closed (accidents, rock slides, or weather), so check in advance. 

How technically challenging is the Tail of the Dragon? Is there anywhere else in the world you've encountered signs saying that the next 11 miles were a high accident area?

Accident warnings are not only for motorcycles.

Exceptionally popular with motorcyclists and those with performance cars, I suspected that the most interesting aspect for me would be the foliage late in the year. The foliage would ideally distract me from watching how quickly a car that's rated 31/39 by the EPA actually burns fuel. And as a normal driver of manual transmissions who was stuck in an "underpowered" automatic, there was no possibility of heel-toe driving for entertainment. Yet I still had a blast. Not as fun as racing Ferraris (more on that later) but wow!

The Versa surprisingly performed capably on the run. It took a while to spool back up when I hit the gas but the contour and angle of the road allowed really nice set-ups from one turn to the next. Most of the larger turns were "see-through" and on an open road, it was much like a personal road course! It was readily apparent the drive was fun for me but most potential passengers would have become carsick far before the end of 11 miles.

I did come upon a few trucks with hunting dogs who didn't use the first available "pull-off" (there are quite a few), so I stopped for some photos. And when I came upon those same trucks later, they quickly used the next pull-off.

The outdoors is one of the reasons I live in Tennessee.

After the Dragon, I did give the car a break so the smell of rubber could dissipate. I had recorded and uploaded part of my transit and Chris wondered if it were real-time! The sound of the engine spooling up, tires*, and the unsecured cargo sliding around in the hatchback were solid reminders that yes, the video was indeed real-time. 

* I strongly agree with the Jaguar test driver who once told me "lightly squealing tires are happy tires".

Not going to post my video of law-abiding driving -- which may or may not have involved me humming Peter, Paul and Mary -- but imagine a Nissan Versa Note safely approximating this S2000.

My slacks were more stylish than this guy's shorts.

Our team puts in thousands of miles a month (yes, month) on dreadfully boring highways (I-10, I-65, I-70, and I-81 are common culprits without naming particular states), so time spent using the car's capabilities was rewarding! And no, we hope to never see the day that Tesla's AutoPilot is required to drive the Dragon!


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