Driving on Germany’s network of speed-unrestricted roads known as the autobahn is an experience that every gearhead around the world should try at least once. However, here are a few things that no one tells you before getting into the left lane and smashing the loud pedal.
(Full disclosure: Porsche flew me first class to Germany for the launch of the new Panamera, after which they gave me several hours of seat time in a 577 horsepower Cayenne Turbo S, on roads with no speed limit. Porsche provided fuel, but didn’t even ask me if I possessed a driver’s license before handing over the keys.)
Top Speed Doesn’t Matter, Cruising Speed Does
The German autobahn is a network of roads developed after World War II, although many improperly cite it as Adolf Hitler’s invention. It was designed to compete with air and train travel within the the country’s borders, which meant that people had to be able to drive across the country freely and safely, but perhaps more importantly, had to make good time doing it. This idea prompted the German authorities to enable certain stretches to have no speed limit at all, single-handedly cementing it as the chronic speed freak’s paradise.
However, once the novelty of being completely unshackled by Big Brother wears off, you’re still left with a vehicle and a place to go with a certain amount of time and fuel to get there, and that’s when things get awfully practical. You see, bouncing off the rev limiter in high gear for prolonged periods of time works if you’re trying to deduce exactly what sort of drug the manufacturer was on when they came up with the top speed figure for your car, but it obliterates your fuel economy, as evidenced by what was accomplished in one three-hour drive by me trying to best a top score of 180 miles per hour:
During the fuel-destroying run, I did manage to best the manufacturer’s top speed figure by a marginal amount, but it didn’t actually result in me realistically getting to my destination any sooner.
The others in my four car group, driving mechanically identical cars, managed to accelerate to a formidable 150 mph and stay there for most of the journey, shifting to higher gears and remaining at a reasonable RPM, while I was accelerating like a frantic idiot. Their brisk pace gave them half a tank of usable premium fuel left, but my car was pleading with me to take it to the next fuel station before it gave me the silent treatment. I beat them to the scheduled stop by about 10 minutes, but managed to kill sixty Euros worth of fuel and took twice as long to refuel. It was also likely that they didn’t blow past unassuming trucks at a closing speed deemed unsurvivable in a crash, and may have probably been a bit better off had something catastrophic occurred.
This is the exact reason why planes don’t fly at top speed all the time, it’s because cruising speed matters in terms of fuel management, cost, and safety, the last of which is a serious consideration with German authorities, which is why...
The Roads Are Constantly Under Construction
I’m not sure this needs to be said to anyone with a functioning brain, but a road that is pummeled by cars traveling a high rate of speed on a constant basis will probably need a little looking after from time to time. Although the aspect of total automotive freedom is liberating, it also comes with the caveat that you could get seriously, seriously hurt if something goes wrong, as was the case a few years ago, with Motor Trend person, incredibly bad tweeter, and paid oil company shill Jessi Lang.
Her monumental crash is a reminder of exactly why the German road network receives constant maintenance. On my day trip from Leipzig to Frankfurt, I counted more than a dozen active construction and cleanup sites, ranging from refinishing lanes to clearing the side of the road of debris using a machine I can only describe as a big-ass vacuum cleaner for giants.
After all, the last thing you’d want on your 150 MPH trip home to catch the new season of Orange Ist Der Neue Schwartz is a total blowout caused by parts falling off some Frenchy’s rusty Peugeot.
However, road maintenance crews can’t catch everything, and that’s why...
Your Brakes Are More Important Than Your Engine
Brakes on even entry-level German cars tend to eclipse the size of the largest of deliverable pizzas nowadays, and unlike your buddy with an Impreza converted to look like an STi, it’s not necessarily all about show. Large brakes are a design feature built into every potential autobahn cruiser because the braking forces to stop a car at considerable speed can be absolutely immense, and for that, you’ll need something that won’t glaze over like a day-old donut.
For example, the brakes on my borrowed Porsche Cayenne Turbo S were carbon ceramic rotors with enormous yellow calipers that I likened to the world’s most brolic banana. Porsche told me that these particular brakes could stop the car with more than three times the force of the engine to accelerate it.
What this meant was I could theoretically be holding the accelerator at full throttle, at 180 mph, and then stomp on the brakes without taking my foot off the accelerator, and the 5,200 lb. car would still come to a stop in a distance rivaling that of an AMC Pacer stopping from 50 mph. As a feat of engineering, it’s insane, and although most, if not all cars nowadays have brakes that output orders of magnitude more power than their engines, it’s more likely that you’ll find the limit of more economical braking systems quicker when you perform a butt-clenching maneuver at high speed.
Simply put, the bigger and more modern the brakes are, the safer you’re likely to be at speed, because no matter what you drive on the autobahn, you’ll always be at the mercy of the slowest drivers in front of you.
Case in point: On one stretch of slightly downhill, bend-free autobahn, my driving partner and Jalopnik alum Máté Petrány attempted to beat the current top speed of 180-ish mph we set earlier that day. The car likely could’ve performed the task, if not for an oblivious motorist driving a Volkswagen Polo that happened to saunter into our lane to pass a slower truck in front of it. We were traveling at well over 160 mph, and less than two seconds later, an alarmingly firm brake press produced a Porsche Cayenne that now clocked a cool 73 mph. Had Máté been a hair off on his judgment, had the car not performed as well as it did, or had the genius in the Polo pulled out any later, you would’ve likely read a tweet erroneously saying I died doing what I loved. That’s how incredibly important brakes are.
But even if you manage to wring the merciful crap out of your car on Germany’s unrestricted highways unscathed, you’re left with the fact that...
It’s Mentally And Physically Exhausting
When you’re in the car, you don’t feel how hard your body is working. You don’t notice that your sausage-sized fingers are leaving dents in the once-firm leather steering wheel, now irreparably stained with sweat. You don’t notice that your back has been pushed into the bolsters so hard and for such a long time that it may as well have been stuffed in a corset. However, when you finally get to stop the car and stretch, the pent-up strain hits you like a trap set by by Kevin McAllister - hard, uncaring, and right in the head.
Staying alert for hours on end at high speed is extremely taxing on your nervous system, and if you’re not mentally and physically prepared to embark on something potentially dangerous and life threatening, the scope and magnitude of a long drive at high rates of speed can be daunting to us everyday folk. Sure, I was in a new Porsche luxury SUV, but had I been in some taut sports car with race suspension, it might’ve made sense to just drive myself to the hospital pre-emptively.
To show just how exhilarating and ultimately exhausting it was on me and my partner, I’ve documented the encounter in video form, with an extraordinary lack of production value. You have been warned.