As the speedometer spooled up, I had to keep reminding myself that I was not going to jail. What I was doing was legal, and what I was doing was 176 mph. Welcome to Germany.
Born and raised in Detroit, your author has enjoyed driving many high-performance cars. From blustery domestic muscle cars to the elegant 252-mph Bugatti Grand Sport, my ultimate driving joy has been restricted by the existence of speed limits. This frustration caused many wishful moments dreaming about having "the car of the moment" on the German Autobahn (or Autobahnen) so that it could be fully enjoyed and evaluated.
Now I was there, behind the wheel of a 2010 Porsche 911 S. Somebody pinch me.Rules of the German Road
Before my trip, I consulted with several colleagues about what to expect. Those with Autobahn experience provided an accurate overview and consistent advice.
Like American interstates, Autobahns are divided highways most with three lanes going in each direction. The slow lane is to the far right, and most have a shoulder farther right. Trucks and cars with trailers use the right lane. The center lane is for faster traffic, and the far left lane is for the fastest traffic.
As Germany's vehicular population has increased, more and more portions of the Autobahn have become speed-restricted. In these zones, maximum speeds range from 80 kph (50 mph) to 120 kph (74 mph). In unrestricted areas, the recommended speed limit is 130 kph (80 mph), but the left lane always runs faster. Sometimes more than twice as fast.
2010 Porsche 911 S . Rex Roy
Moving between lanes is not the casual exercise it is on American interstates or expressways. Germans signal every lane change, and they move in and out quickly and with precision. This promotes safety and becomes critical when the speed differential between lanes of traffic can be upwards of 100 mph. Also, passing on the right is strictly forbidden and enforced by a heavy fine.The Goal
Taking to the fabled Autobahn in a VW Golf or Ford Fiesta wouldn't make for much of a story. Satisfying years of dreaming required a more serious car. The solution came in the form a German icon, the Porsche 911.
The 2010 911 S model uses a six-cylinder engine that produces 385 horsepower and can acceleration from zero to 60 mph in just 4.5 seconds. That's quick, but irrelevant to this story. The important fact is that 911 carries a stated top-speed of 188 mph. That figure became my Holy Grail.
A German colleague mentioned a not uncommon occurrence: tourists travel to Germany, rent expensive sports cars and head directly to the Autobahn. He said, "With this, the results are never good." In the best cases, just the cars are lost. In the worst cases, innocent Germans are caught up when foreigners crash big.
German Autobahn Map. Adam Morath
Things happen quickly when traveling upwards of 260 feet per second, almost a football field in the blink of an eye. I heeded the cautionary tale.
Traveling across Germany by tour bus before my driving days gave me the opportunity to become familiar with German road signs. “Ausfart” means exit and the Autobahn is identified by a blue highway logo. I also observed that the general layout of Autobahn entrance and exit ramps are narrower than American. Plus, there is absolutely no shoulder to the left of the fast lane, making that lane feel peculiarly narrow.
While I trusted that the Porsche was delivered in good condition, I did recheck the inflation of the tires. The car was fitted with Continental SportContact3s, a tire known for exceptional handling and even better braking. I hoped to enjoy the former and not need the latter.
The prep made my first day of driving easy and tension free. The 911's excellent navigation system made it simple to plot a course along the Rhine River, west of Frankfurt. Several moderately open stretches of Autobahn provided the opportunity to work the Porsche up to an easy 120 mph for stretches of a mile or three. I elected to fall in behind faster traffic to help my brain and vision acclimate to the velocities, using the vehicle ahead as something of a scout or early-warning system. By the end of the day, cruising at 120-130 mph was comfortable when traffic was light.
German Autobahn sign. Rex Roy
Sunday is the day to drive fast in Germany. Trucks are forbidden from the Autobahn, dramatically reducing congestion and increasing the average speed of traffic.
With the navi set on Hannover, I headed northeast from Frankfurt on the A66. The Autobahn didn't free up until the A7 past Fulda, nearly 100 miles from our start. Here, the road rolled with terrain that looked like hilly sections of the American Midwest.
Moderate traffic allowed one section of nearly 15 minutes at 120-130 mph. Slowing down for local speed zones of 60-70 mph felt so slow I expected kids to pass me riding tricycles.
In one unrestricted zone past Fulda, the driver of a slate gray Audi A8 blew by me. I dropped the Porsche's manual gearbox from 6th to 4th and gave chase. The Audi driver clearly possessed advanced skills and an attitude to match. When approaching any traffic in the fast lane, he activated his left turn signal as if to let them know, "I'm coming, please move over now." Having watched him come up on me from behind, he often followed with impatient high beams flashes to clear his lane in a Moses-like fashion.
A Guide To Autobanhning
We drove for miles at 155 mph, the Audi's top speed. At this pace, several things became clear; roads that look and feel smooth at 70 mph aren't smooth at twice that speed. It took a concerted effort and unbroken attention to keep the Porsche in its lane as every bump and dip wanted to pitch the car into the woods.
Only once was I surprised by traffic and had to rely on the Porsche's substantial brakes and grippy Continental tires. A Fiat signaled a lane change from the center to the left as I was bearing down on him. High beam flashes got his attention and he aborted the pass even though he was already half-way into my lane. His little SUV rolled one way and then pitched back like a rowboat in heavy seas. Even still, the obstacle required heavy braking, and it was at this point I let the Audi continue alone.The Thrill
Closing in on Hannover, it became increasingly clear that hitting anything close to the Porsche's top speed of 188 mph would take a dedicated effort. A totally empty stretch of unrestricted Autobahn would not simply appear. I would have to make my opportunity.
Cars Made for the Autobahn
After another dozen miles of 110 mph cruising through medium traffic, I was ready to mount the assault. Serendipitously, a black BMW 5-Series wagon appeared hot in my mirrors. I accelerated to match his 140 mph pace. Letting him run ahead a half a mile seemed to open up a safe window for a top speed attempt.
Shifting the Porsche into 5th gear, the throttle went down. The recognizable sound of the 911's six-cylinder engine could be heard, but just barely over the roaring wind noise. The digital speedometer in the center of the rev counter flew past 240 kph, then 250, 260, and 270. Closing quickly on the BMW, the driver moved right and I passed at 277 kph on the way to 284 kph before I had to slow for my exit to Hannover.
To hit the 911's top speed, the speedo would have had to read 302 kph. I missed it, but only by a few percent -- a shortfall I could live with. Hitting 176 mph can now be added to my resume.The Takeaway
With the reality of traffic and imperfect drivers (I often saw Germans texting and talking on cell phones while driving, which is illegal there), the Autobahn didn't quite fit the Nirvana of Speed my ignorant mind had created, but it was still a great experience.
Talking with those who live in Germany gave me additional insights. First, had I hit the Autobahn at first light on Sunday, there would have been less traffic and more opportunities for speed. Another common suggestion was to run at night, but this came with the warning that you should be familiar with the road you're on, because at high speeds you can out-drive the reach of your headlights.These new ideas give me reason to plan another trip in hopes of reaching the magic 300-kph mark.