Every time I get back to the U.S. from Germany, my friends ask me if I drove on the Autobahn. When I respond "yes," they often tell me they're jealous. But my friends shouldn't envy me, because the Autobahn isn't what most Americans make it out to be. Often times, Germany's highway system actually sucks.
I'll begin by saying that I just drove a Volkswagen GTI at 260km/h on a road so perfect, it makes the metro Detroit roads I'm used to driving look like the surface of Mars.
But as amazing as my short high-speed runs on the Autobahn were, I've concluded over the past few months in Deutschland (I also spent much of my childhood in Bavaria) that the highway system over there is not the car enthusiast's mecca that many Jalops think it is. There's often too much traffic to go fast, and even if you do get up to speed, truckers and insufficient lanes make putting the pedal to the metal feel downright dangerous.
Traffic on the Autobahn, especially during daylight hours, is often a disaster. I recently needed to get from Frankfurt to Wolfsburg for a car show near VW's headquarters. Instead of asking the company to buy me a ticket for a train or plane, I asked Volkswagen to drop off a GTI at my hotel, as I figured driving would be more fun. I was wrong. Very wrong.
The whole damn route was filled with "Baustellen," (construction zones). Signs like the one below littered the Autobahn, sending my blood temperature up a few degrees until -- by the end of the drive -- my blood was boiling. A 3.5 hour trip had taken me nearly six.
This wasn't just an isolated experience, either. It seemed like every day I drove on the Autobahn, I found myself dealing with construction zones. Those Baustellen often funneled drivers into ridiculously tight lanes that had me praying to the car gods that I wouldn't bounce my GTI into the guard rail on the left or the car to my right. Those narrow lanes have yellow lane markings that take precedence over the white ones below them; all too many times, truckers who don't know this follow the white lines, and take up the whole road.
And sometimes, it seems like the Autobahn's speed limit drops for no reason; "Why am I going 100 km/h right now? Where's the construction?" I asked myself frequently. My mum, who has lived in Germany for years, tells me construction and all of the perils it brings are just things you have to get used to in Germany.
And it's not really that surprising, if you think about it. On a road that allows people to travel however fast they want, tolerance for potholes or large cracks is nonexistent -- the asphalt has to be as smooth as glass. And to keep it that way requires constant maintenance.
It's worth mentioning that my driving was at the peak of summer (when heat is most likely to cause the asphalt to warp), but the fact remains: high standards for road quality come at the cost of more frequent construction. And based on my experience, "more frequent" seems to mean "endless."
I did meet some awesome Mazda Miata enthusiasts at an Autobahn rest stop, though. Zoom into the guy's shirt.
It was more of the same last month when I completed a trip from Frankfurt (where Mazda held its Global Tech Forum) to Augsburg (the location of an excellent Mazda museum). A dozen or so American journalists got behind the wheels of gorgeous Mazda MX-5 RFs at our hotel in Frankfurt at around eight in the morning, with scheduled arrival at noon.
Everyone was geeked to be able to wring out their cars on the legendary Autobahn. But that geekiness was quickly quenched when traffic -- referred to endlessly on German radio stations as "stau" or "stockende Verkehr" -- struck hard, and we arrived at the museum over an hour late.
I'm not entirely sure why there's so much traffic. Obviously, the frequent construction has something to do with it, and the fact that many stretches of the Autobahn are only two lanes doesn't help, either. Germany's higher population density than the U.S., and its located at a critical junction between eastern and western Europe are likely contributing factors, as well. Just look at this mess coming out of Muenchen during the day on Wednesday:
I'm sure there are places in the U.S. that have as much traffic as Germany's Autobahn, but for me to discuss the Autobahn -- and contrast it with a typical American's view of the highway system -- without mentioning traffic would be disingenuous. It is a problem. But perhaps even more of a problem are the trucks.
Even if, somehow, you do find an open stretch of Autobahn to wring out your Porsche's turbo flat-six (and that's totally possible at the right time, and far from major cities), there's a problem: many times, there are only two lanes, and if someone in the right lane is going faster than the person in front of him or her, they're going to want to pass.
This is a huge issue that has kept me from dropping the pedal on the Autobahn, even when there was no traffic. Far too many times, I've found myself going 225km/h, only to be cut off by a 97km/h apple truck from Poland trying to pass the 80km/h peach truck from Romania ahead of it.
Time and time again, truckers and folks towing trailers with cars I never even knew could tow trailers (like the BMW 4 Series below) have pulled into my lane without looking, in an attempt to overtake someone ahead. And time and time again, I have to stand on my brakes, flash my high beams, and subsequently pull over to change my trousers.
At this point, I'll only drive over 161km/h on the Autobahn if there's either nobody in the lane to my right, or if there's a decent gap between cars in that lane. It's not worth rear ending an overtaking construction truck on my way to dinner, when I've still got so much Jägerschnitzel left to consume in this lifetime.
Sometimes It Is Amazing
The No Speed Limit Sign you see above is one that should bring excitement into anyone's heart, especially if that "anyone" is behind the wheel of something with a bit of power.
In a quest to balance out my critical view of the Autobahn, I reached out to my friend (and Jalopnik reader) Andreas, who told me that, in his experience, cruising around 161km/h really isn't that difficult in Germany, especially on north-south lines of the Autobahn, saying:
I've travelled approx. 100k km on the Autobahn in the last 5 years and I would say that 50-60% of them were steady at around 160...All of my colleagues were driving over 200 when I drove with them. The trucks are mainly a problem on the big west-east routes like the A3 or A6; the A9 or A7 for example often are very quiet and 3 lanes most of the time.
He went on, telling me how much safer and comfortable an unrestricted highway makes him feel:
I actually find it satisfying driving on the autobahn. I seldom feel exhausted after a journey, not like in Austria where I always have to carefully regulate my speed and am more occupied in doing that than observing the traffic.
So, obviously, your mileage will vary, here. I totally agree that there are quite a few long stretches where you can cruise at around 161km/h. But I've just found that -- because so many truckers try passing each other without paying attention to who's coming up from behind, and because there aren't enough lanes -- cruising at higher speeds like 241km/h becomes a genuine white-knuckle affair, where I'm constantly pray that the slow cars remain in the slow lane.
And I still maintain that traffic is a bit of a disaster, and that many Americans will be disappointed if they fly into Munich or Frankfurt expecting to blast down the Autobahn at 290km/h without a care in the world. Sometimes you can, but more often, you cannot.
Sure, you'll be impressed by how well Germans obey the "left lane is the passing lane" rule, how nice the roads are, and how little tailgating people do. In fact, you'll probably like the Autobahn a lot (I sure do). But more than you probably expect, traffic will annoy you, trucks will scare you, and with each passing minute, the untapped potential in that flat-six engine will drive you insane.