There is little question that the best country in the world to drive in is Germany. Yes, they sit on the wrong side of the car but one little negative has got nothing against the best racetracks, the best roads, the best driver skill and, oh yes, those roads without speed limits – the Autobahn.
I’ve rented cars in Germany a couple of times now. So for those who haven’t been – or those who got it wrong first time, here are the best outsider’s tips for driving in Germany.
1. Make Sure You Have a Good Engine.
My topmost, number one important tip. The first time I came here I rented a C180. In context, it’s one of the most rubbish cars I’ve ever driven. No power. At all. Rubbish fuel economy from working the tiny engine hard. It was like the McLaren Honda of rental cars. It didn’t break down at least, which was good.
Second time around, I’ve learned. My criteria now? You need a minimum of 180kW (241hp). 6 cylinders are strongly recommended. Diesel even more strongly. This time? I hired an xDrive 530d with Sixt. After checking out most of the rental websites, Sixt seemed to give me the best chance of guaranteeing I got the right engine.
I cannot think of a single better car to have done our trip in than a 530d. That new inline 6 diesel in the G30 generation is unbelievably smooth and the torque is absolutely monstrous. 620Nm (457lb ft) to be exact. Hit the cruise control resume to return to 200km/h and it hardly needed more than 2500rpm. So effortless, a proper monster engine. Being a diesel, it only used 3 tanks to do our 2500km. Not bad given how fast we were going. That’s super important over here, because fuel is expensive. Really expensive for me as an Aussie, bloody expensive if you’re from the United States.
2. Location Location Location.
My other top tip when renting a car – if you can avoid it, don’t book your car from an airport or train station. These are ‘Premium Locations’ that charge a significant extra fee. Our plans meant spending a couple of days in Munich either side of our rental pick up and drop off, so I arranged our car through a smaller location at a BMW dealership in Munich’s north. It was easy to get to on the train, they still spoke English and I saved more than €200.
3. Pay Attention and Keep Right.
The first thing about actually driving here? The other drivers are generally good. Lane discipline is a way of life, not a suggestion. Attention to traffic flow even more so. The flow is king here and the other road users are generally very courteous about it. So don’t settle in to the complacency that you do at home.
That’s not too hard though. Simply driving at the increased speeds on the Autobahn makes you more alert. So keep right at all times. Never go out into the far left lane unless you’re going faster than everyone else and check your mirrors first! You never know when a big Benz or BMW will come barrelling down on you, the closing speeds can be pretty quick.
4. Be Prepared to Unlearn Some Bad Habits Quickly.
We’re always taught to be careful of our speed. After all, ‘Speed Kills’. The Germans on the other hand usually do 15-20km/h over the speed limit when there is one. Also the lowest roadwork speed limit you’re likely to come across is 80km/h, which means everybody is actually going 95-100km/h. You have to unglue your eyes from the speedo and just go with the traffic flow. Remember what I said earlier about how important the flow is? Don’t be the bottle neck.
I’m not writing this website to be political but it’s here you realise just how rubbish the Speed Kills mantra is. Everybody here is taught how to drive. Not just the road rules. With no speed limits, they’re aware that other drivers may choose to go faster. Rather than trying to block them off like some kind of personal crusade against faster people, they keep to the right. All the time, without fail. On several occasions now I’ve had a small Skôda or a Fiesta move out in front of me. They realise that I’m coming, a lot faster, so they pull back in and allow me past before pulling back out to make their own overtake. Now that is civilised motoring.
5. Going Fast.
For the most part you can do any speed you want on the Autobahn. So once you’ve settled in and found the rhythm of the traffic, it’s time to stoke it up a bit. Step 1, turn on your headlights. I don’t mean your DRLs, it’s law to have them on anyway. I mean your headlights, click them over from auto to on. This is your signal to other drivers that you’re coming. Conversely, see headlights closing in up in your rearview mirror? Move right.
I like to use the cruise control. The 530d let me set it as high as 210km/h. I usually set it at about 200. The cruise is a great way to maintain average speed, you subconsciously tend to ease off if you’re trying to do it with the right wellie. We’re used to cruising at 100km/h after all. The radar cruise control was also excellent. Like having an extra pair of eyes and it would always brake earlier than I would. My top speed? I know you’re interested. I went up to 240km/h, the maximum allowed on the winter tyres fitted, however the 5er gets a little less stable over the 210 mark so I didn’t cruise there.
At 200km/h, you’re going faster than most of the traffic. The locals tend to sit somewhere between 130 and 150. Unless you’re around Munich. So get those headlights on and move out left. However, keep half an eye on that mirror.
6. Be Ready with the Brakes.
I said most drivers in Germany are good, not all. So just like any driving situation you need to have your brake foot ready. Just like watching your own mirror if you go to pull out into the fast lane, sometimes the other drivers do misjudge your closing speed so a firm brake might be necessary. At these speeds, a firm brake is probably firmer and with more weight transfer than you’re used to which means the back will squirm around a bit. The electronic systems on the car will sort it out, but it’s a bit unnerving the first few times.
7. Also Get Ready for Some Roadworks.
The roads are very well maintained, which means lots of roadworks. We had some great, uninterrupted sections and then a lot of roadworks. Even though our cruising speeds were up around the 180-200km/h mark, the roadworks meant our overall average trip speeds were still under 100. Don’t expect just because you can drive any speed you want that the travel time between destinations will reduce. There were times when we’d hit an unlimited section and get up to speed, just to hit another restricted zone again.
8. No Trucks on Sundays!
You want real freedom? There are a lot of trucks in Germany and for the most part, they are restricted to the right lane. This means that the normal traffic bottlenecks into what is effectively one less lane. This leads to denser traffic and more restricted flow. If you’re planning a day where you need to do a lot of distance, make sure its a Sonntag (Sunday). It’s much less crowded.
9. Be Prepared for Traffic Jams.
Traffic jams on the Autobahn are legendary. Some of the locals even go as far as making sure they have a thermos and a packed lunch in the car just in case they hit a big one. Some kind of traffic avoidance system is absolutely vital.
The easiest way is to make sure you travel with data on your phone so you can use Google Maps satnav with traffic. Then make sure you can mount your phone and use it properly. Given I already have the product in my own car and can vouch for its excellence, I made sure I booked a BMW with ConnectedDrive Real Time Traffic Information. Most BMWs with the ‘Professional Navigation’ in Europe will have this system. Internet based traffic data is piped into the car’s native satnav and it reroutes based on the traffic condition. It saved us from traffic jams on no less than 5 occasions. We hit slow sections, but no jams. Strongly recommended.
10. Forget What You’ve Been Told.
There’s a lot of misinformation about the Autobahn. Lots of embellished stories about all the Ferraris and Porches that blow past at 300km/h. Or how scary and ruthless the local motorists are. It’s all utter crap. The commonality of a car doing more than 200km/h isn’t high. 250 or 300km/h? In over 4000km on the Autobahn, I haven’t seen a single one. So forget about the intimidating locals. The only time you could possibly feel intimidated is if you drive like you drive back home. Like driving in the left lane slower than the person behind you. Remember your flow, move right if you’re not overtaking and you’ll have one of the best motoring experiences there are to be had in the world.