Friday, February 20, 2009

Musings from a Connecticut Yankee Car Guy in König Deutschland’s Court

Here's a little ditty I wrote up during our last trip to Germany, January 2009; you know, the one I was working on at the museum cafe while I bored my wife...?




As many of you are aware, I just came back from a week+ in Germany. Had a blast. I’m in a writing mood, so you rat bastards get to read my musings, much of which already appeared on Facebook...

For a car guy, Germany is Car Heaven, on many levels. I’m not sayin’ I’m ready to move to Germany; there’s just too many ‘other things’ (mostly socio-economic) that makes it “a great place to visit, but I wouldn’t wanna live there.” However, if you’re a car guy, you gotta visit some time in your life.

Let’s start with the Nürburgring, shall we? What can I say that hasn’t already been said? Nothing, other than the place flat-ass rocks (and that's been said before). Easily the best race track I've ever driven on, BAR NONE. I got three laps on the track: one orientation lap in the right seat with a ‘Ring-racing-experienced friend in her Range Rover (with her dog and my wife in the back…the dog slept, my wife didn’t ; another one in the right seat of the Mercedes-Benz C220 CDI rental car with another ‘Ring-racing-experienced friend driving; then I did one lap of my own solo in the rental car (more a quick orientation lap than anything at speed; wife was smart and decided to sit that one out. Oh, and I think the Ranger Rover lap was quite a bit faster...)

I tell ya, Road America is incredible, VIR is a blast, and Road Atlanta is my favorite. But until you've driven the 'Ring, life ain't over yet...

I would so love to do the 24 there…Kirk...?

They talk about how intimidating this track is, but it's not insurmountable. If you can drive VIR and Road Atlanta well, you can drive the 'Ring, and I suggest an experienced racer can figure out 90% of the track in a good afternoon of lapping in a street car. Think of it as the *old* Road Atlanta, VIR, and Road America all mixed together, add Aarmco walls 4 feet off both sides of the track all the way around, and triple the length... <grin>.

One other thing we noticed at the 'Ring is that Germany is not free of a “wanker” crowd. Even though it was a cold (but sunny) winter afternoon, there were people milling all over. We were surprised at the number of people that just seem to come out in performance street cars, mill around, and just watch. Though there’s nothing to see on the track (the Einfahrt and Ausfahrt are along a long straightaway, with curves mostly out of sight), there were many people standing around by the toll gates, just watching people go out and come back in. I really felt under a magnifying glass driving out and coming in, almost as if they were admiring people with enough…whatever?...to actually do it. There were even more people, mostly "kids", who would drive into the parking lot and just 'hang out'.

The cars that did go out when I was there were interesting, everything from Mini Coopers (original and new) to some Porsches and a few modified BMWs (mostly German cars, not too many Hondas...sorry guys). Driving the roads around the area you could tell who was headed that way, as many were driving cars with highly-modified suspensions. I can easily imagine centering your hobby purely around the non-competitive environment of lapping the ‘Ring... This time of year was definitely a good one to go there, as there was very little traffic. In contrast to what many say are hour-long waits per lap, last week you could have paid your toll (21 euros per lap) and gone right on the track. Of course, we got very lucky in that the weather was sunny and the track, for the most part clear; there were a few patches of ice in shaded areas, but all were clearly marked and guarded with flag persons. And you just can’t beat having that track almost all to yourself (passing on left only!!)

I’ll be back there someday. Soon.

Then there’s the autobahns. Pretty much everything you’ve heard about them, save the wild stories about cars constantly whooshing by at 200 mph with their lights flashing (that only happened once or twice). We drove ~1600 km total during the week, and the highways were a dream come true: good condition roads, reasonable speed limits (when there were any at all), and other drivers showed significant amounts of courtesy and situational awareness. Drivers there actually left the attitudes at home, and made it easy for everyone around them to go their own way. The whole idea of ‘keeping to the right’ and passing only on the left is foreign to this country, but quite evident there. I’m not saying that Germans are super-drivers - hell, they showed me the last day I was there that they can’t drive worth a crap in the snow any more than we can – but they are aware and courteous, and not trying to compare d**k sizes in your car goes a hell of a long way towards making things “work”.

And you know what? Those vaulted autobahns aren’t nearly as “better” than our Interstates that you’ve been led to believe. Our roads have better (longer) accel and decel lanes, our surfaces are mostly-comparable, and we have much better divisions between opposing traffic (the autobahns are mostly close together with Aarmco-type barriers). We could do the same thing here, had we the will and better driver education for the recognized social norms that the Germans observe. We just keep shooting ourselves in the foot, and our non-existent driver’s education system leaves us with a “Lord of the Flies,” looking-out-for-me, competitive driving environment. We could do it, but we deserve what we got…

And, given the ability to drive pretty much as fast as I wanted to in many areas, I soon found myself settling into a nice, easy pace of around 140-150 kph for the most part, roughly 90 mph. Ain’t sayin’ I didn’t open it up a few times (I manually set the car’s speed-limiter at the recommended 210 kph due to winter tires), but 140-ish is a nice compromise between “wanting to get there” and “wanting to not stress out myself and my wife in the process”.

Of course, driving that last day, while trying to get 600 kms under our belt to our airline flight, in a strong snowstorm with traffic crawling at 45-50 kph, watching that “open circle with three diagonal lines” sign slowly crawl by (the “no speed restriction sign”) was pretty frustrating and disappointing. But I’d gotten it out of my system by then…mostly…
Let’s talk about that rental car, and German cars in general.

I had originally requested a mid-sized, manual-tranny, diesel-equipped Audi A4 “or similar”. By the time I got there (Thanks to Delta we missed our original flight to Frankfurt) EuropCar had available either a diesel Mercedes with an auto, or a manual “something” (I don’t know what it was) with the gasser engine. I took the Benz. Glad I did. That M-B C220 CDI is one hell of a car. LOVED the engine: TONS of torque (Wes sez 300 ft-lbs?), zero noticeable turbo lag, I could easily merge onto any autobahn with ease. The tranny shifted nice and with a purpose, and even offered a “sport” mode (which I used a couple of times and never really noticed a difference. And I rarely used the manual shift mode ‘cause the auto was so good). The suspension was tight, sporty, fun to drive. Equipment was “base” with cloth seats, but had normal power accessories, and a nav system (though I preferred my handheld Garmin that I’d brought, since it had a map). The headlights ROCK on this thing, I can't overdrive them even at 'bahn speeds. Rear wheel drive, of course. And no matter how much I flogged it, we averaged about 31 mpg. And it’s an attractive car, to boot.

And you can’t get it in this country.

For the entire friggin’ week, I had to look at a shitpot-full of good, attractive, fun, sporty cars that we can’t get in this country. And it flat-ass pissed me off. I‘m not talkin’ the high-end stuff, like Bimmers, Audis, and Benzes; we get all the (gasoline-engine-equipped) high-end stuff imported here. I mean the smaller, lighter cars and those powered by diesel engines. Gotta be 80% (if not more) diesel-equipped there, and the range of available engine sizes is incredible (even the Smart has a small diesel!). Everything on average is smaller but that's probably got more to do with fuel costs than anything (~1 euro/liter, or ~$5.75/gal.)

Remember the VW Rabbit GTi? Small, light car, with peppy engine? I've often wondered if we could ever bring back that car. Well, they did: that's now the VW Polo GTi. Micro cars? Oh, yeah: Ford Ka, some kinda of Kia, TONS of "Smart" cars (the smallest car I've seen here, they're all over the place, but they're pricey here, too, so they don't appeal to the budget rather to the same "see me" market as with the Prius – didn’t see many hybrids at all…) But Mercedes, Citroen, Ford, Renault, Peugeot, Fiat, Nissan, Alfa Romeo (attractive!), and BMW all have "true" compact cars, ones in the size range of the 2-dr Golf and smaller, ones that I would even consider buying if they were offered. And we don’t get ‘em here. These are good cars that fit the true NEED of transportation, with reasonable driving fun and basic comforts, without the excess we've demanded in the past. 'Course, some of those micros make the Golf and even the New Mini look monstrous in comparison... We need some of these smaller cars in the US; hell, dare I say that in this new emerging climate of "less is more" we actually WANT these smaller cars? Many are more than capable of fitting these needs/wants, "if only" they'd import them...

And for those in the U.S.A.'s snowbelt used to seeing huge plows in front of full-sized pickup trucks? Comically, plow work here is dominated by the Suzuki Samarai (or whatever they call it there) and a much smaller plow blade. Makes sense, though: why do you need such a large truck for doing driveways and small parking lots? Hell, my 16hp lawn tractor has a plow and it does a damn fine job...so why not a Samurai? Of course, the autobahns are covered by similar huge trucks with huge plows as we use on the interstates here.

And that C220 CDI I rented that I'm so enamored with can’t be had in the USA. The smallest Mercedes you can get in the US is the C300 with a 3.0-liter V-6, and the only car they offer with a diesel is the E-class -- starting at US$55k. Fuggedaboutit…

To add salt to the wound, we went to VW's AutoStadt on the last day, and in the Audi Pavilion they were displaying a beautiful dove-gray A3 Sportback, equipped with a 1.9L TDi-E diesel engine. The specs are IMPRESSIVE – and…we can't get it here. Sumbitch. Well, the Jetta Sportwagen for '09 offers the 2.0L TDi in the US; pretty nearly the same car for ~$10k less. Thea and I are very serious about buying one…
History? I could go on for centuries (wait, they already have!) Seeing something built in the Middle Ages is pretty impressive, especially coming from a state (Texas) that just recently celebrated its 150th birthday, and now living in a state (Connecticut) that wasn’t too far ahead of that…visited Nürburg (of course), Nürnberg (Nuremberg) and saw Hitler’s parade grounds/Zeppelin field (and the Norisring race track – yawn!), Went off the beaten autobahn path more than a few times (side-road-driving is pretty incredible) to Bayreuth and points in between, had a Kulmbacher beer in Kulmbach (more on that in a moment), Berlin and all its WW2 and Cold War history (you’d be hard-pressed to find evidence of East Germany or the Berlin Wall there, if it wasn’t consistently pointed out), a few days in Hamburg (the new Auto Museum is an interesting stop), Wolfsburg and the Autostadt (interesting as well, but mostly for the auto museum, but don’t bother with the Lamborghini pavilion unless you want to waste 20 minutes), then back to Frankfurt. And all the autobahns in between…

And then there’s the beer. Most people think of beer first when they think of Germany, cars guys think of beer second (but not too far behind). We think of large mugs of beer served by attractive fräuleins in busty suits (Bavarian-style!). We think of the Reinheitsgebot ("purity order", not in effect any more) that makes German beer…well, German bier. Well, I did my best for the Sandbox to sample any and all beers, sacrificing myself for the good of my friends and peers. I tried beer in as many stops as I could make, “passing” along all that I’ve learned. But, I’m going to produce a bit of heresy here: while I enjoyed drinking beer in Germany, I have to say I was less than awestruck.

The most prominent beers available in Germany are the Pilseners. Everywhere you went, there was a pilsener close to you. This is the beer we usually think of when we think of Germany; it’s the pale lager, light in body and hoppy. In fact, at some places it was all that was offered. Everybody had one: Kulmbacher, Krombacher, Warsteiner, Erdinger, Bitburger, you name it. And, here’s a nice revelation for me (you probably already knew this): notice the “-er” on each one? It describes the town it originated from, apparently. Kulmbacher comes from Kulmbach, etc. I asked about this, and the reason there’s so many regional brewers is because “in the old days” every area had its own brewery, as it was easier than shipping, storage, spoilage, etc. Anyway, I found most of these pilseners refreshing, but in the end uninspiring. One, with minor differences probably due to water, pretty much tasted like the next; all showed ingredients of “water, malt, and hops” in (German, of course). But, the consistency among and between the beers was very good.

So, I’m going to offer that when you visit Germany, step off the beaten path and try something different. I tried several “altbiers”, amber hoppy beers; many “weisbier”, or wheat beers; some dunkels (dark); and some helles (malty beers). I even tried a couple of the “eisbocks”, a freeze-distilled beer, which knocked me on my ass for the rest of the night (very high alcohol content)…one thing I’ll give them Germans in regards to beer, though, is VOLUME: beer was available EVERYWHERE. Restaurants, hotels, bars, of course, but also McDonald's, Burger Kings, and all other fast-food places; coffee bars in department stores and along the street; and even despite their .03% BAC laws, you could buy beer – sometimes even on-tap – at pretty much all autobahn rest stops. Germans definitely love their bier.

But, for the most part, I gotta say, take some time to review the our “winter beer” thread here and you’ll recognize that beer lovers have it pretty g-damned good here in the USA. Go walk the aisles of your nearest package store and you'll see the beers available here are pretty darn good...and if you want to experience a little bit of German pilseners, go snag a six of Bitburger or Warsteiner, close your eyes, and pretend… <grin>

Well, that’s my about-2500-words version of why you, as a car guy and beer lover, want to go to Germany, at least once in your life. And, if you decide to stay, whoring yourself out to be able to drive the Nürburgring in your street car, you won’t get any conflict from me on it…

Greg