We may not have the Nürburgring or the Stelvio Pass on our shores, but we do have Tail of the Dragon. The 11-mile section of US-129 in North Carolina and Tennessee has long been known by American motorcyclists and car enthusiasts as one of the nation’s best driving roads. Trouble is, it’s a nine-hour drive from AUTOMOBILE’s Detroit office, so I never found time to go there. After a weeklong vacation in South Carolina, I decided to take the long way back to Michigan so I could attempt to tame the Dragon for the first time. When taking on such a serious driving road, our 2015 Ford Mustang seemed like the perfect steed.
The journey is the destination
I leave the vacation house my family rented on Hilton Head Island early in the morning and set the navigation system for Robbinsville, North Carolina. It’s a tiny little town in the middle of nowhere, but it lets me hop on North Carolina 143, which becomes the Cherohala Skyway. Many people told me that the roads leading up to the Dragon are just as fun as that 11-mile stretch, and N.C. 143 proves them right. It’s a snaking two-lane that winds back and forth, up and down through the woods. Entertaining as it is, the route isn’t particularly challenging for a sports car like our Mustang EcoBoost. Nonetheless, it’s a welcome change from the flat, straight Interstate highways I’ve followed so far on my vacation.
At the Santeetlah Gap, elevation 2,660 feet, I pull over to admire the view. I’m ready for a break from the Recaro seats, after all, as they don’t have enough padding to keep my lower back comfortable over long distances. Mountains rise from the landscape, one after the other, for as far as I can see. Two Canadian motorcyclists pull over to enjoy the scenery. They’re on a 16-day tour of great biking roads through the U.S. and are also headed to Tail of the Dragon. Seeing me snapping photos of our 2015 Ford Mustang EcoBoost, they live up to the stereotype of Canadian friendliness and ask, “Do you want us to take a photo of you with your baby?”
There’s not much time to linger, though, as I need to cut off N.C. 143 toward U.S. 129, which will lead me to Deal’s Gap and the start of the Dragon. On a whim I turn down Santeetlah Road and instantly feel like I’m on an asphalt rollercoaster. The road snaps left and right in switchbacks so tight I’m downshifting the Mustang to second gear. Despite the speed limit signs, there’s no chance I’ll hit 45 mph on this stretch of road, no matter how many of the Mustang’s 310 horses I use on the short straights. Now I’m grateful that the snug hug of the sports seats keeps me in place as the Pirelli P-Zero tires build g-forces around bends. The fun is spoiled briefly when I have to slow for an oncoming moving truck, but otherwise the deserted two-lane may as well be my own private track.
Meeting U.S. 129
The flowing ribbon of asphalt dead-ends at the intersection with U.S. 129, here called Tapoco Road. Heading left, I find time to enjoy the scenery rather than the car’s handling. It’s a wider road with gentler curves, but it traces along a gorgeous river that could be on a postcard. I can’t help but pull over to look around, hearing only the babbling of the water, the chirping of crickets, and the occasionally whoosh of other cars on the main road. This might not be an incredible driving road, but it’s an exceptionally pretty and scenic one.
Soon enough, Tapoco Road reaches the Cheoah Dam, a massive hydroelectric plant that spans the Little Tennessee River. The road loops across the river, providing a dramatic view of the 225-foot-high dam upstream, and then continues along the other side of the river, snaking up through the woods and away from the river. Soon enough, I spot the Tail of the Dragon motorcycle resort and the Killboy.com gift shop that mark the start of the road I came here to explore.
No V-8, no problem
I pull over to check out the Tree of Shame, an infamous landmark from which hang the busted body parts of motorcycles and cars that accidentally made a sacrifice to the Dragon. A grizzled biker walks over to inquire about the car. He has a Mustang Boss 302 and wants to know how much power the V-8 in our orange Mustang produces. I explain that our Four Seasons 2015 Ford Mustang EcoBoost actually has the four-cylinder turbo, which surprises him. There’s very little traffic out on the Dragon at the moment, he says, and no cops, so now’s the time to go for a run if that’s what I’m here for.
I don’t have to be told twice.
I accelerate up the first hill into the woods and am instantly steering left and right over a corkscrew of turns, climbs, and descents. Occasionally the road pops out right along the edge of the hillside, with no guardrails to keep you from tumbling downward, but I’m too focused on the road to take in the scenery. Someone has helpfully spray-painted “SLO” ahead of exceptionally sharp corners, and with so many of them blind, it’s no surprise there are dozens of YouTube videos of nasty accidents along this stretch of road.
I’m constantly working the steering back and forth, attempting to look through the corners as much as I can in case another sports car or a motorcycle is cutting it a little close to the double-yellow center line. The sheer number of turns, many of them off-camber and tight enough that I’m hard into the brake pedal time and time again, grateful that our car’s upgraded Brembo stoppers slow the car without fail and without overheating.
I reach the end of the famous 11-mile stretch of road and pull over to take a breather and admire the mountains around me. It’s getting late in the day, and I’m hungry. Time to find dinner and a hotel? Nah. I don’t know when I’ll next make it to this part of the country, so I turn around and make another pass through the Dragon. Then I turn around at the motorcycle resort and do it a third time. By the end of my play time, the fuel-economy readout on the car’s trip computer has fallen from 29.9 mpg to 17.5 mpg and I’ve burned up a quarter-tank of gas. Worth it.
If car nuts have a bucket list, driving this road has to be on it. I’m not sure I would drive for nine hours just to come here — plenty of other states in the Midwest have exciting two-lane twisties — but I’m glad to have sampled one of America’s legendary roads. And I’m especially glad to have had such a capable car for the experience. In the battle between a ponycar and the Dragon, our bright-orange Mustang easily came out on top.
- Body style 2-door coupe
- Accommodation 4-passenger
- Construction Steel unibody
- Base price (with dest.) $30,125
- As tested $36,700
- Engine 16-valve DOHC turbocharged I-4
- Displacement 2.3 liters
- Power 310 hp @ 5,500 rpm
- Torque 320 lb-ft @ 3,000 rpm
- Transmission 6-speed manual
- Drive Rear-wheel
- EPA Fuel Economy 21/32/25 (city/hwy/combined)
- Steering Electrically assisted
- Lock-to-lock 2.2 turns
- Turning circle 37.8 ft
- Suspension, Front Strut-type
- Suspension, Rear Multilink, coil springs
- Brakes F/R Vented discs
- Wheels 19-inch aluminum
- Tires Pirelli P-Zero summer
- Tire size 255/40R Y 19
- Headroom F/R 37.6/34.8 in
- Legroom F/R 44.5/30.6 in
- Shoulder room F/R 56.3/52.2 in
- Wheelbase 107.1 in
- Track F/R 62.3/64.9 in
- L x W x H 188.3 x 75.4 x 54.4 in
- Passenger capacity 84.5 cu ft
- Cargo capacity (rear seats up/down) 13.5 cu ft
- Weight 3,532 lb
- Weight dist. F/R 52/48%
- Fuel capacity 15.5 gal
- Est. fuel range 496 miles
- Fuel grade 91 octane (premium unleaded)
- Front and rear independent sport suspension
- Limited-slip rear axle
- Front and rear disc brakes
- Selectable drive modes
- Leather-trimmed seats
- Heated and cooled front seats
- Tilt-and-telescopic steering column
- SYNC touchscreen display with MyFord Touch
- Push-button start
- Universal garage door opener
- Satellite radio connectivity
- Track apps
- USB/iPod interface
- Cruise control
- Front daytime running lights
- Air conditioning
- Heated, manually folding mirrors
- HID projector headlights
- Automatic headlights
- Rear diffuser
- 60/40-split folding rear seats
Options on this vehicle
- Package 201A: Shaker Pro 12-speaker premium sound system, Blindspot monitoring – $1,795.00
- EcoBoost Performance Package: 255/40R19 Summer tires, rear spoiler delete, 3.55 ratio limited-slip axle. Torsion bar, rear sway bar, 19-inch ebony black painted aluminum wheels — $1,995
- Premier trim with color accent — $395.00
- Recaro leather sport seats — $1,595.00
- Six-speed manual transmission – $0