According to my imagination, Germany’s autobahns are mythical highways where Porsche-based Rufs prowl the left lane and the speed limit is infinity. In my autobahn fantasy, I decide to dash out for some black forest cake from the actual Black Forest, so I jump into my Mercedes-Benz 500E and blaze out on a 150-mile journey. The only other traffic consists of slightly slower cars that move immediately to the right when I flash my headlights. Defer to my superior power, peons! One hour later: I’m eating cake. Also, all of this is taking place in 1994, for some reason.
That’s the fantasy. The reality is something else.
Last fall, I made my autobahn debut in a Bentley Continental GT Speed, and that adventure was probably as close as you can get to a modern autobahn ideal — far from any cities, with 616 hp under the hood and a set of brakes that could squeeze a smile out of Victoria Beckham. Although I hit 190 mph, there was never much time spent at high speeds. The electronic speed-limit signs over the highway would show a circle with a slash through it, indicating no limit, and there’d be about a minute of flat-out fun before having to slow for traffic, a corner, or a reinstated speed limit. Cruising along for an hour at 155 mph just didn’t happen — and that particular drive was scouted for maximum autobahn entertainment.
A few months ago I returned to Germany to drive the Mercedes CLA45 AMG, and the route happened to include some autobahn on the way to the Bilster Berg racetrack. This traffic-choked autobahn outside of Hannover is probably more like the real-life daily experience. After about a half hour of steady traffic and constant speed limits, the overhead sign finally flashes that magic rune signifying hammer time. Left lane empty, I gleefully floor it.
The 355-hp CLA45 is no Bentley Speed, but it can get up and hustle. Soon I’m at 130 mph, blurring past my fellow drivers, who seem not to notice that they’ve saddled a unicorn: a highway with no speed limit. By 140 mph, I realize the reason for their indifference. The very next sign affirms that the 81-mph speed limit is back in effect. The fun lasted for about a mile. I hit 142 mph; the locals didn’t even bother speeding up.
A couple of weeks after I got home, I learned I’d racked up two speed-camera tickets on rural roads once I left the autobahn. (Yes, the Germans will find you.) On balance, I think I prefer our system, where there’s always a speed limit but enforcement is typically relegated to an actual human being. There’s some sport to that, at least. Bugs Bunny cartoons wouldn’t be as funny if you replaced Elmer Fudd with a Reaper drone.
I’m not saying that the autobahn isn’t worth experiencing, and I appreciate the novelty of legally doing 190 mph, if only for a moment. But in terms of high-speed opportunities, there are plenty right here in the United States. You can enter the Silver State Classic in Nevada and drive as fast as you want. Visit the Bonneville Salt Flats, perhaps in October when there’s not much going on (get a permit from the state and the place is yours). Or conceive some kind of video project, and you’ll find that certain states are amenable to closing roads for filming. A Porsche Boxster S at 125 mph on the Cherohala Skyway is more fun than any autobahn.
With the autobahn checked off my list, I still have plenty more automotive goals to pursue. I just drove in the Tributo Ferrari Pacific Coast rally — itself a fantasy-worthy production, in that it involves driving Ferraris on some of the best roads in California — at the conclusion of which the drivers all received photos stored on a thumb drive. The drive, shaped like a key, was shackled to a yellow leather Ferrari fob. Normally when I receive such a brand-specific item, I give it to one of my friends who owns a corresponding car. But I think I’m going to keep this prancing-horse keychain and let it remind me, every now and then, of another nice fantasy. One in which that fob is connected not to a USB drive but to something substantially better.
In my Ferrari-owning fantasy, all drives are like the Tributo rally, scything through endless corners under cloudless skies, no traffic and no agenda. And if that’s not the reality, I don’t want to know.