Any moment now, the visiting American will climb into a supercharged 469-hp Mercedes E55 AMG, wheel it out onto the Hockenheim racetrack outside Stuttgart, and let ’er rip! But first, he has one question for his charming hostess from AMG: “Will I need this?” he inquires, indicating his racing helmet, typically de rigueur on American racetracks. But not, it appears, at Hockenheim. “Why would you wear a helmet?” ripostes the young lady from AMG. “You don’t usually wear one, do you? Anyway, you won’t be going as fast as you could on the highway.”
Given that the American expected to hit about 140 mph on the Hockenheim straight, he knew she did not mean just any highway; she was referring to the autobahn. For visiting Americans accustomed to the more languid pace of Stateside highways and double-nickel speed limits, that first ride along the autobahn can be a hair-raising experience. The speeds, say nervous neophytes, defy all reason.
Paradoxically, when Germans return home they say the same of American roads. “I recall driving on American highways,” says AMG German Touring Car Championship racing team physician Dr. Markus Schmitt, who regularly negotiates the autobahn in his own E55 at multiples of the limits posted along American roadsides. “I felt a constant sense of dread. It’s the speeds,” he says. “Americans drive so slow.”
In fact, says Dr. Schmitt, who has studied the relationship between speed and attention spans, it is a wonder there are not more accidents on American roads. “A driver traveling at American speed limits is a safety hazard; it is hard to stay awake. You cannot concentrate.” This line of thinking, of course, is anathema to the American go-slow lobby, which has long perceived slowness as a virtue, speed as a vice, and the autobahn as its bête noire.
Ultimately, what sets Germans apart from other drivers is not how fast they drive but rather, how well. This is, after all, a country where nobody is granted a license before completing 24 hours of driver’s training in the classroom and more than two dozen driving lessons with an instructor, including four drives on the autobahn. Passing on the right is strictly forbidden, and the motorist who does not pull over to the right to allow a faster vehicle to pass is both rare and unwise. Driving is a ritual, not merely a way to get from point A to point B.
But the differences between the two highway systems transcend issues of safety. Philosophically, the American system is geared to that most tedious form of egalitarianism, the lowest common denominator, thereby subjecting the competent and incompetent alike to the same constraints. By contrast, the autobahn represents a kind of enlightened elitism, the belief that the fast and the slow can coexist harmoniously as long as everyone sticks to his own lane and obeys the rules.
But in recent years the autobahn ethos has been under attack. Politicians have cited the environment, safety, fuel conservation, and even Common Market solidarity as reasons to install a speed limit. These campaigns have made little headway among the electorate, who regard the road as their birthright, but Germans have seen the autobahn of legend fade away nonetheless. “It is not what it used to be 20 or 30 years ago,” says Dr. Schmitt, reiterating a common lament. This has less to do with politics than with the highway’s own popularity. “There is so much congestion, one can hardly drive.”
As a result, a “suggested”—but unenforced—speed limit of 130 kpm (about 81 mph) prevails on stretches of the autobahn. Acknowledging this new mind-set, Mercedes, Audi, Volkswagen, and BMW have installed electronic speed restrictors on their cars to limit them to 155 mph.
Of course, there are exceptions to everything. “We don’t advertise it,” confides Mercedes AMG President Ulrich Bruhnke, “but AMG offers a super high-speed performance option with special suspension and tires that raises top speeds to 185 miles an hour.”
Yet no matter how fast you are traveling on the autobahn, there is always the chance that the car behind you is faster. Even at the wheel of an AMG supercar, you are advised to keep an eye on the rearview mirror and bear in mind that Porsche does not limit its speeds at all.