A Visual Tour of VW's Autostadt, an Amusement Park for Car Nerds

It's a must-see for Volkswagen fans.

Benjamin HuntingWriter, Photographer

Wolfsburg is one of the youngest major German cities, a mere octogenarian in a country where one can regularly drive past churches and over bridges that can easily quintuple that number. It's also the birthplace of Volkswagen—the city sprang up to service the company—which is why it was chosen at the end of the last millennium as the site of the automaker's massive, €435 million Autostadt theme park/cultural center/vehicle-distribution hub/gearhead heaven.

Since "car city" opened its 69-acre spread in the year 2000, 2.6 million Volkswagen customers have picked up their new car there, and that's not counting the millions more who have visited even though they haven't bought anything. What draws so many to this enormous facility snugged right next to the VW mothership, the largest automobile factory in Europe? We visited the Autostadt, cameras in tow, to give you a better idea of its charms.

The Autostadt's twin car towers are definitely the campus's conversation piece. These mammoth cylinders are more than just a stylish buildings—they also pull duty as a Volkswagen delivery center for new-car purchases, and are connected directly to the nearby production line by underground tunnels. Measuring 160 feet tall, each glass-and-metal structure can contain up to 400 vehicles when fully loaded. The twins cut an imposing figure on the Wolfsburg skyline, and can be seen rising up over the city as one approaches by automobile.

The Autostadt towers are the world's fastest fully-automated car park, and can cherry-pick and move customer vehicles throughout the structure at a speed of six miles per hour. On average, Volkswagen delivers 500 automobiles a day by way of the tower system. This means that cars, trucks, and crossovers are rarely stored for longer than 24 hours within either tower. It takes no more than 94 seconds for a car to make it from the bottom to the top of the structure (or vice versa) using the autonomous elevator system.

One in every three Volkswagens sold in Germany is custom-ordered at a dealer for delivery at the Autostadt. After waiting several months for the privilege of factory pickup, the new owners can also spend a holiday in the on-site Ritz-Carlton, tour the extensive grounds, take in the various exhibitions, and participate in a number of family-friendly activities. During the summer there are concerts and shows, and the Christmas holidays are marked by high-energy festivities (the Autostadt only closes two days a year—New Year's Day and Christmas Eve). Think of it as Disneyland for German car fans, and you're not far off.

Immediately upon departing the towers, new VW owners will encounter a long, private road connecting the outside world to the five-star hotel at the end. Look closely—or listen to the sounds being generated as you drive over the surface—and you'll realize that the road is made from a variety of different materials meant to simulate pavement from all over the world. There's also an off-road track available if you just can't wait to get your Tiguan dirty (but not a Touareg, as it's too big to fit in the towers).

The Autostadt has 12 restaurants, its own power stations, bus line, florists, psychiatrists, and even hunters, so it only makes sense that it also has its own neighborhoods. Each major brand under the VW Group banner is represented by its own pavilion on the grounds, including Audi, Porsche, Lamborghini, Škoda, SEAT, Bentley, and Bugatti. (The last two brands share a structure.) The one assigned to Porsche is shown above, and it's entirely composed of brushed steel; it looks like something from a sci-fi movie. The acoustics of the curved surfaces are so unique that in the summer a floating stage is positioned just in front so that musical and other performances can take place. Oh, and why hunters? To take care of the birds that occasionally flit their way into the factory. 'They make such a terrible mess if they get into the machinery,' we were told.

While wandering from one pavilion to the next, you might encounter one of these unusual robots rolling down the many paths that link the Autostadt's various buildings. Although they look like a mix between a mini Mars Rover and a cooler, they're actually used to transport license plates around the facility. If you get in the way of its forward progress, it will politely tell you that it's a very busy robot, and then ask you to move aside. If you refuse—well, do you really want to be responsible for instigating the cutest robot uprising ever? The word "STARSHIP" is written across the back of each unit, but no one could tell us why.

The GroupForum pavilion of the Autostadt currently includes an exhibit called "AutoWerk—Gateway to Production" that illustrates how VW builds its cars. To that end it offers up several unique cutaways—some even include sliced engine blocks—that show what's going on underneath the skin on many of the company's more popular models. Each are lined up so you can stare eerily through one chunk of vehicle to the next, all the way to a screen at the front of the room that goes into further detail about the production process. There is also a section dedicated to EV technology, showcasing a cutaway of the Volkswagen e-Golf.

Children aren't forgotten at the Autostadt. There are outdoor playgrounds that dot the landscape, a swimming pool set into the large lagoon that cuts through the facility, and of course a full driver's course for kids that starts off on indoor simulators and ends up with a skills test on miniature track just past the exit of one of the main buildings. Young ones get to demonstrate their driving skills in convertibles and are awarded an on-the-spot license if they pass muster.

One of the most intriguing set pieces at the Autostadt is also one of the easiest to miss. Set into the floor of the main hall of the Piazza are a network of globes under glass that each illustrate a unique data point. Called the "World Processor—Field of Globes," the installation includes 80 pieces in total, and was created by artist Ingo Günther. The rotating globes visually present social, economic, and political information, boiled down to a rotating set of graphics that makes each easy to understand. The entire data set is updated twice yearly.

Then, of course, there are the cars. What would the Autostadt be without a museum dedicated to celebrating not just Volkswagen and its associated brands, but also significant vehicles built by other automakers? In addition to a comprehensive ZeitHaus collection documenting the VW Group's progress from the original Type 1 to the Bugatti Chiron, you'll also find a rotating multi-floor display with gems like Porsche tractors and this never-find-it-anywhere-else, W12-powered, mid-engine Golf concept (which we drove in 2007). For once, a roof scoop doesn't seem superfluous.

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