Go East! 370 HP BMWs Find Thrills on Fast German Autobahn
Self-described speed-freak Christian Graf von Wedel owns a 370-horsepower BMW that’s designed to go twice as fast as some single-engine planes. Ask him about driving it on Germany’s speed-limit-free autobahns, though, and he’ll tell you it’s hardly worth the trouble, at least near his Frankfurt home.
“An autobahn isn’t always an autobahn,” said Wedel, a real estate investor who runs GW Wohnen GmbH & Co. KG in Frankfurt. “There are few good places in western Germany to drive fast.”
While Wedel’s frustration might surprise foreigners who think Germans all zip down the 13,000 kilometers (8,000 miles) of autobahn at blinding speed, it’s increasingly difficult to find limit-free stretches of road with traffic sparse enough to really open the throttle.
Slightly smaller than Montana, Germany has more than 80 million inhabitants and 43 million cars vying for space on its freeways. Today 35 percent of the system has some kind of speed limit, up from about 25 percent in the 1990s, according to the ADAC automobile club.
In the car-crazed country, the autobahn even became a hot topic in next month’s election when Sigmar Gabriel, leader of the opposition Social Democrats, called for a nationwide limit of 120 kilometers per hour (75 miles per hour).
Gabriel was instantly slapped down not just by Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats but also by his own party’s chancellor candidate, Peer Steinbrueck. The Social Democrats, trailing in the run-up to the Sept. 22 vote, quickly reversed course before the issue could total their election chances.
“There’s no relationship between speed limits and safety,” said Andreas Hoelzel, a spokesman for the ADAC in Munich. “We have some of the best-built and safest highways.”
Hoelzel said the ADAC backs increased use of autobahn digital signs that can temporarily impose speed limits if there’s heavy traffic or bad weather. About 7 percent of the autobahn now has such signs.
Driving fast is such a part of the German DNA that the website Speedjunkies4life has created a map showing the speed limits -- and lack thereof -- on Germany’s highways.
Wedel says he doesn’t need a map to know where to go: the autobahns in the former Communist east. On highways there, he has taken his BMW 5-Series up to 300 kph, faster even than the 275 kph he has managed on the fabled Nuerburgring race track, where he sometimes drives.
“Let’s say you’ve picked up a Porsche at Zuffenhausen,” the automaker’s main factory in southwestern Germany, he said. “Don’t think you can get it up to full speed around there.”
Instead, Wedel recommends the A4 east of Dresden to Poland, about 90 kilometers. After winding through southern Saxony with views of the Zittauer Mountains, it ends in Goerlitz, a city untouched by World War II bombs, where some 4,000 buildings dating back as far as 500 years have been declared historic monuments.
An even remoter stretch in the east is the A15 in Lower Lusatia, a region known for lignite strip mines and pine forests interspersed with oaks and birches. The A15 was constructed by the Nazis to link Berlin and Breslau, now the Polish city of Wroclaw. The autobahn was viewed as a prestige propaganda project by Hitler, and his regime built thousands of kilometers.
The A15 remained little changed under the East’s communist regime, but has been rebuilt since reunification in 1990, and East Germany’s Trabant-friendly speed limits are no longer in force. Paved with steel reinforced concrete, it feels seamless even at racetrack speeds.
Leaving the capital on the southern part of the A10 “Berliner Ring,” drivers are often hemmed in by trucks with Polish, Russian and Belarussian license plates. Once on the A15, the traffic thins and it’s not uncommon to see a Porsche, Ferrari or Lamborghini come up so fast in the rear-view mirror that a typical Golf driver might feel he’s standing still.
The A15 runs through thick woods, with a long straightaway between Vetschau and Cottbus that skirts the Spreewald, or Spree River Delta -- a region of farmhouses and villages, some of which can only be reached by boat. Germans out for a thrill ride typically exit before reaching Poland, where the highways are limited to 140 kph -- and where the road linked to Germany’s A15 is in such dire shape that it has limits as low as 70 kph.
Another highway popular with speed seekers is the 350-kilometer A20, or Baltic Sea Autobahn, north of Berlin. The eastern half is so devoid of vehicles that plans to build four rest stops with gas stations have been put on hold due to revenue concerns.
The A20 runs through Merkel’s election district in the state of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania. The CDU mayor of Grimmen, which despite having a population of just 10,000 has two separate A20 exits, even enlisted Merkel’s help to build a community stock car racing track. Mayor Benno Ruester, himself a former racer, said he originally ran into trouble with the state nature preservation agency when he tried to build the track to get youths off the streets.
“This is the one time I’ve gone to her for help,” said Ruester, whose first action after being elected mayor was to order a backhoe to remove all the city’s parking meters. “A single letter from Merkel changed everything.”
Merkel opened the A20 in December 2005, less than a month after she was first sworn in as chancellor. Planned but never built under the Nazis, the roadway cost almost 2 billion euros ($2.7 billion) to complete. It’s money well spent, Marc Adelmann will tell you.
On the A20, “Sunday morning is fantastic because trucks are banned,” said Adelmann, owner of a dealership in Potsdam that sells used Maseratis, Lamborghinis and Ferraris. “I recently took a Maserati and got it up to 280 kph.”
To contact the reporter on this story: Leon Mangasarian in Berlin at email@example.com