Fourteen years ago, I was 24-years old and traveling on my first trip to Europe. I flew into Brussels, rented an Opel Astra 1.4-liter hatchback, and immediately drove to the Nurburgring. I was instantly addicted to the brilliance of the legendary track that Jackie Stewart called "The Green Hell." I have subsequently returned to the 'Ring many times over the next 14 years. For my tenth visit, I decided it was time to travel with my family to the area of Germany that I love so much.
We spend quite a bit of time in England. Our two children have been all over the UK but never to mainland Europe. My British wife has been all over Europe but never to Germany. We originally planned to take a fast sports sedan to the 'Ring but then I came up with a more adventurous plan. I've always loved the idea of utilizing the 2+2-seating layout of a Porsche 911 for a road trip. From Porsche's UK press office, I was able to get a racing yellow 911 Carrera C4S with a seven-speed manual. As a bonus, it was fitted with the $17,800 X51 powerkit -- bumping the horsepower from 400 to 430 hp and adding a few other extras including the Sport Chrono Package, sport exhaust, and minor trim changes.
Packing for the journey wasn't exactly easy. Our children are both under 9-years old, and although the adults in the Noordeloos family are light packers, the weather in the Eifel Mountains of Germany can be unpredictable. In the end, we fit the majority of the luggage in the 4.4 cubic foot front trunk (down from 5.1 cubic feet in the rear-wheel drive 911), the kids put their backpacks on the generous shelf under the rear window, and we lined the somewhat sparse interior storage areas with various items such as mobile phones, sunglasses, passports, and snacks.
We departed from just outside Stratford-upon-Avon in the Midlands of England at 7 a.m. on an early August Sunday morning for the 175-mile journey to the Eurotunnel in Folkestone. Luckily, traffic was very light -- rare on UK motorways -- and we were able to cruise at 90 mph, except on London's M25 ring road. It was a relatively painless, 3-hour drive. The only real bother was the road noise from the wide, 305mm Pirelli rear tires due to the grainy road surface of British motorways. There was also a bit of complaining from the kids in the back, mostly due to a lack of legroom and less than ideal vision out the small side windows. The jet lag from our flight over from the USA only two days earlier surely didn't help.
The Eurotunnel is an extremely efficient way to cross the English Channel. We booked the journey online a few weeks earlier. It cost a reasonable £138 (about $215) round trip and the crossing only takes 35 minutes -- compared to 90 minutes by ferry. It's a great experience. Where else can you drive your car onto a train, stay seated in the car, travel under water, and then drive off the train in another country?
Upon arrival in France, you must remember to drive on the other side of the road (the American side, the right). The other important bit of information is that the French police are lethal when it comes to speeding. The limit is 130 km/h (81 mph) if the roads are dry, 110 km/h (68 mph) in the rain. Rumors are that the Gendarmerie will nail you for as little as 1 or 2 km/h over the limit. With British plates and bright yellow paintwork, I didn't take any chances and stuck strictly to the limit. Unfortunately, the 911 doesn't come standard with cruise control in the UK -- it does in the USA -- and that option wasn't fitted to our press car.
Belgium was next. There, the speed limit is 120 km/h (74 mph) but many of the locals were cruising closer to 150 km/h (93 mph). We did the same but the road surface was even worse than the UK and the resulting noise in the 911 was near deafening. This kept our speed at least partially in check until our first stop for fuel, just outside Liège. At around $8.75 a gallon, premium unleaded is not cheap in Belgium (or the rest of Europe). Thus far, the 911 managed an indicated 27 mpg (U.S.), which is not bad.
That impressive fuel economy didn't last, as just on the other side of Liège was our destination country, Germany. Shortly after crossing the border, the magical "derestricted" sign showed its fabulous face and we took advantage of the Porsche's power. August isn't the best time for top speed runs on the autobahn due to summer holiday traffic but at least trucks are a rare sight on Sundays. We were able to touch 175 mph just south of Cologne before traffic thwarted our plan to play with the claimed 189 mph top speed. The 911 felt perfect at speed and my wife and kids loved every minute.
We arrived at the Hotel am Tiergarten in the town of Nurburg at 4 p.m. With the time change, it was an 8-hour journey. The family wanted to relax after being stuck in a small car, so I unloaded the luggage and they got situated in the room. I still felt fresh and hopped back into the Porsche for the short, two-minute drive to the entrance of the Nordschleife -- the old circuit at the Nurburgring. I wanted to get in a couple of laps around the 13-mile track before dinner. I purchased a 4-lap ticket for 97 Euros (around $130 USD) and headed out onto the circuit.
The Porsche felt fabulous around the 'Ring and the optional carbon ceramic ($8520) brakes are utterly amazing. No matter how hard you use them, they will not fade and they always give you a confidence-inspiring firm brake pedal. I was in Germany just one week earlier testing the newest 911 GT3 (http://www.automobilemag.com/reviews/driven/1307_2014_porsche_911_gt3/viewall.html), so the steering precision and overall balance of the 911 Carrera C4S felt a little off, comparatively. The steering on the new GT3 is so much better that I have a suspicion that the face-lifted 911 Carrera models will utilize a similar software setup for improved steering feedback.
I was just about to start my second lap when the circuit was shutdown due to an accident. I decided to call it an evening and headed back to the hotel. The wonderful German beer and a steak on hot stone at the Pistenklause restaurant in the basement of the hotel were calling my name. The Hotel am Tiergarten is a wonderful place to stay. Rooms in August are around $130-225 USD per night and include a fabulous breakfast. The mother of the famous Nurburgring racer, Sabine Schmitz, owns the hotel. Sabine gained fame after piloting Jeremy Clarkson around the 'Ring in a BMW M5 Ring Taxi for an episode of Top Gear. During my past visits to the hotel, Sabine has been behind the bar serving drinks.
The following day we explored the charming town of Adenau, which is only 5 miles from Nurburg. Adenau has a population of about 2900 people -- compared to 148 in Nurburg -- and features a great shopping area. It offers conveniences such as grocery stores, coffee shops, and a car wash. My son especially enjoyed sitting outside a café in the center of town, observing the wonderful mix of trucks, sports cars, motorcycles, and tractors cruising down the main street. This area of Germany is absolutely car mad and you see all varieties of automobiles around every corner.
Back in Nurburg, the circuit opened for public laps at 5:30 PM. My wife and kids were loaded up and ready when the gate opened. After the blast up to 120 mph and through the first corner, I thought my son was going to explode with excitement. He burst out, "I have never been on a racetrack before Daddy. This is awesome!" I had to inform him that his first ride around a racetrack is on the best circuit in the world. I am not sure he fully understands what a magical and challenging track the original Nurburgring truly is. I've completed around 40 laps around the Nordschleife and I still need to drive it like a tarmac rally stage, leaving a margin for error. The cambers, elevation changes, and traffic force you to really be on your toes, especially if you want to drive quickly. The best part about running the 911 around the circuit was having 430 hp at my disposal for the steep, uphill section of the track. There were times when we were going 120 or 130 mph, passing cars that were only going 80 mph or so. That's quite a closing speed; thank goodness for those wonderful carbon-ceramic brakes.
After a couple more laps -- one with just my son and one solo -- my ticket was used up and it was time to head back to the hotel. Sitting on the picnic tables outside the restaurant, we shared drinks with an international group of car people. This reminded me of one of the most wonderful aspects of being a car geek. No matter what language you speak, you can always talk automobiles. It's just one more reason why the Nurburgring is so special. The parking lot of the hotel featured cars registered in Great Britain, Germany, Norway, Sweden, Italy, Switzerland, Portugal, Ireland, Spain, Belgium, France, Poland, and the Netherlands. The most popular car you see is no doubt the Porsche 911, with a large number of those being the 911 GT3. The BMW M3 seems to be the second most popular car. This is truly a magical place.
The journey back to the UK was uneventful, but enjoyable nonetheless. Traffic on the autobahn meant that we didn't top the 175 mph run earlier in the week. The return trip on the Eurotunnel was even easier than the outgoing journey. The system utilizes a license plate recognition system, allowing the check-in computer to display your name and crossing time on the touch screen as you drive up. Back in England, there was light traffic on the motorways once again and we arrived back near Stratford-upon-Avon in good time. The final numbers showed an indicated 21 mpg, 1082 total miles, and 18 hours spent in the car. The 911 burned through four tanks of fuel, about $500 USD total.
Overall, the Porsche 911 Carrera C4S was the perfect travel companion and is truly is an option for a second car for a smaller family. The engine note, speed, and character of the 911 easily compensated for the road noise, the lack of interior space, and muted steering compared to previous-generation 911s. Sure, a Panamera would have been more comfortable for the trip to and from the 'Ring -- at least for my wife and kids -- but it can't match the track composure or fun factor of a 911. Plus, shifting a manual gearbox is still one of the most satisfying aspects of driving there is. I highly recommend anyone with one ounce of passion for the automobile to book at trip to Nurburg. You don't need a Porsche to enjoy the experience. My first lap around the circuit in the 90 hp Opel Astra is still burned into my brain as one of the best adventures I've ever had.