I was trailing a bit behind the rest of the group as I landed at Inverness at around 9pm (I flew rather than drove up), where I was greeted by a Levante Diesel in Blu Emozione which, in my opinion, is the best colour; the 21-inch Anteo wheels are rather nice too. Surely that would be absolutely no off-piste adventures though? More on that later. Arriving later also meant my first leg of the NC500, up to Wick, was in total darkness. It doesn't matter how good the Levante's bi-xenon super duper headlights are, the darkness of the Scottish Highlands, combined with an ocean you can hear but not see, is enough encouragement to take it a little easy. Luckily, 'our' car came with the optional Bowers & Wilkins sound system (£3,460), which was very good company indeed.
The crack of dawn soon followed and we were up and ready to see some of the famed scenery, and hopefully get a bit of a wiggle on to see what this 'sporty' 4x4 can do. John O'Groats was our first port of call, where the roads were mostly open and flat, with sufficient visibility to make any overtakes simple. Having said that, the 3.0 diesel does feel a little breathless at speed, which should come as no surprise from a car that weighs 2,205kg.
Another party piece of the Levante is it's near perfect weight distribution. And on these reasonably wide and open roads - on this part of the route, at least - it can really roll up its sleeves and be fairly good fun! Venturing on from a very windy and slightly snowy John O'Groats (featuring a mad person out running in shorts) we stumbled across some big, hairy... sand dunes. Hidden behind them a white sandy beach which wouldn't have looked out of place in the Seychelles. So we did what any normal person would do and took the car down there. This was effectively like a green lane and the Levante bumped over it all nicely. The grassy sand highlighted a bit of an issue though. This being that the parking sensors are annoyingly over sensitive and tend to shout at you from what feels like miles away, emphasized again when sticking two feet out of a parking bay...
Travelling on through Durness was my first encounter of their single track system with passing places dotted along the road. Interesting. Blind coastal corners being particularly interesting. It was here that the car's generous dimensions made themselves crystal clear and somewhat less welcome! Travelling at any more than 30mph in some sections was asking for trouble. Luckily, the Scottish Highlands are very sparsely populated. When heading through Scourie those beautiful two-lane roads returned and my wincing alleviated - the Levante is not the ideal car for small, single track roads! We were even advised to avoid the usual NC500 route into Lochinver on the B869, through Drumbeg, as it was apparently impassable in these cars! I shan't argue with that. Nonetheless, the Levante powered its way across the coastline and provided us with a comfy, relaxing ride and respectable amount of fun for a car of this size.
With day two done and dusted, I was determined to get the Levante off-road. Therefore, on the way down to Ullapool, we spotted an uphill forest track which looked pretty fun. It was, after all, very capable in the snow, so a little bit of mud and rock should have posed no problem at all... And you know what? It was genuinely impressive! The Levante's Active Air Suspension allows five ride heights which is, to be honest, excessive, but giving 40mm of extra ground clearance in Off-Road 2 mode allowed the car to glide over pointy rocks without tearing bumpers off. Which was nice. This little track soon turned into a rather steep and rocky incline, but the Q4 system handled the slippery conditions well; watching the power being transferred to wheels with grip was very satisfying while poking my head out the window, trying to dodge rocks. It actually left me wanting a little off-roader!
We left the rocky track unscathed to finish our final part of the journey; we had an option to cut out Applecross and head straight back to Inverness along the A832 to make sure we make our flight that evening. But that would be boring and I like a challenge! When I first saw yet more single track roads, this time combined with rain and a sign which read 'ROAD IMPASSABLE IN BAD WEATHER', I'll admit I thought it looked like a misjudgement... I am so glad we did it though. Heading up the thin track I felt like Frodo traversing Mount Doom in Mordor, except sitting in a heated leather seat. When we arrived at the top the views were incredible, but were now left with the descent back down the other side, and when a BMW X5 pops round a blind corner a little too quickly, you soon wish you had a little more stopping power. And some new trousers.
Engine: 2,987cc, V6 diesel
Transmission: 8-speed automatic, all-wheel drive
Power (hp): 275@4,000rpm
Torque (lb ft): 443@2,000-6,000rpm
Top speed: 143mph
MPG: 39.2 (NEDC combined)
CO2: 189g/km (combined)