Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Crash Course on the German Autobahn: Pass or Fail

Written by Karen.
"Okay, here we go," I said, mostly to myself.  We had just picked up our little rental car from Tegel Airport in Berlin, and suddenly, without much time to figure out who should drive the first leg of our road trip, there was the blue sign for the Autobahn.  

The German Autobahn is well known for its network of high speed public highways with few required speed limits.  On the open road - free of construction, traffic, and weather delays - the advisory speed limit is 130 km/hour, or 78 miles/hour. But this is not a mandatory speed limit; it is quite common to see cars seemingly flying down the road at much higher speeds.  

It's easy to see why. The highways are clean, well-marked, easily understandable, well-maintained, smooth, flat and have long, sweeping curves. There are no tolls. Once outside of the cities, you are quickly surrounded by verdant green and rolling hills and trees with little visual clutter.  It is a driving dream. According to Wikipedia, in 2012 the Autobahn had 12,845 kilometers of high-speed roadways criss-crossing throughout Germany. This is a driving system designed for maximum driving pleasure and velocity - one that we had been looking forward to experiencing for awhile.

Our long anticipated driving experience on the Autobahn was about to begin. The lane that I was in was becoming a forced exit directly to the Autobahn. "Yes, this is it," Adam confirmed after consulting with our map. I downshifted into second gear, hoping for enough torque and acceleration to merge quickly into the fast-moving traffic.  Our little gas-sipper tried - really tried - to fit into the fire-breathing clique of BMW's, Audi's and VW's that were roaring past - but the four-cylinder bubble that we were driving was tossed aside in their wake. 

We had requested a VW when we ordered our rental car.  'Sure, no problem,' we were told.  Hmmmm, so how did we wind up with a Hyundai i20? It's a fine car, I'm sure, if we were driving in a place with a top speed limit of 60 miles/hour or driving about town, but the poor thing strains its little heart out each time we try to reach the advisory speed limit on the Autobahn. 

It's taking us both a little time to warm up to the little guy. C'mon, we are driving on the Autobahn!  And somehow we are driving a car that wants us to be in fifth gear when we get to around 35 miles/hour!  A gas-sipper, that's what it is!

From our vantage point in the slow lane, we yearningly watch in awe and desire as fire-breathing monsters come out of nowhere on the horizon and pass us with a giant swoosh that causes our little car to quake and shudder in their air turbulence.  And then just as suddenly the fire-breathers are gone again. Far ahead of us in just seconds - good luck reading the license plates.

And then, I saw my first opportunity.  There ahead of me was a lumbering petrol semi-truck going 100 km/hour (60 miles/hour).  I quickly felt the racing adrenalin pulse hot through my body, my fingers gripped the hard plastic steering wheel, and I looked back in my side mirror for a clear runway to pass.  The fast lane was all mine, for the moment.

Just for an instant I wasn't driving our little bubble car anymore.  Instead the top of the sporty convertible was down, the back whale tail was fully extended, the soft afternoon sun on my face was fresh and cool, the high speed breeze was whipping my hair into a royal mess, and the six-turbo-charged-cylinders that lay beneath the hood were pulsing and growling. Now, my own fire-breathing monster was awake and ready to pounce at my command.

I took one last look in my rear-view mirror. It was still clear. There was no one in sight. I had the open road - and it was beckoning - and I was going to answer the call.  We were on the Autobahn!  I hit the left turn signal and jammed my right foot down hard on the accelerator and pulled into the fast lane to pass.  One-one thousand, two-one thousand, three-one thousand. Time seemed to slow down.  How long was this truck?

Adam jumped in his seat with alarm.  "How fast are you going?" he asked.  

I looked down at the speedometer and the racing speed growls that I was hearing came into focus. Our little car was screaming in protest as I continued to stamp on the accelerator pedal willing it to creep up just a little higher.   Four-one thousand, five-one thousand, six-one thousand. I finally reached the advisory speed limit of 130 km/hour (78 miles/hour).

"I'm going the speed limit," I responded, feeling the hot racing adrenalin turn into streams of stress sweat pouring down my back.  Adam continued,  "It literally feels like the bolts on this car are going to pop off under my feet!"

I looked in my rear-view mirror and saw the fire-breathing monsters quickly filling up my rear-view mirror.  They held back a few meters - waiting - knowing they could easily pounce on me like a cat on a mouse.  

I hit the right blinker, signaling my intentions to get out of the fast lane, and then darted back into the slow lane. I - we - breathed a sigh of relief. I lifted my foot slightly from the accelerator. We had safely passed the petrol truck.  And we had survived our first fifteen minutes of driving on the Autobahn.  

We're going to have to work on getting our little guy up to speed.  Adam saw a sign for 100 octane gasoline. It's called racing fuel here in Germany.  Perhaps that will help? 

Despite being in the slow lane, there isn't much traffic around us.

Tall pines with reddish-bark seen in a blur as we drive by on the Autobahn.


Anonymous said...

Well written! I was mentally pumping the gas pedal while you were passing the truck! Steve S.

Anonymous said...

You go girl! Lizette

Anonymous said...

Ah, if you only had your Porsche and your dreams would have come true - and you would have been a fire breathing monster yourself. Great story - thanks for sharing. Gus & Cam

Kelly said...

Karen, such a well-told story! So glad you made it around that truck.

Observers of Life said...

Thanks Steve, Lizette and Kelly! It was 15 minutes that seemed to last a lifetime! :)


Observers of Life said...

Hi Gus and Cam -

Most of the time I don't miss our "old" lifestyle, but I have to say, that driving on the Autobahn made me miss our German engineered daily drivers! One of these days, I'll have another go with a fire-breathing monster!