It's 4:30 a.m. in northern Germany and I'm parked in a rest area on the A31 autobahn. Dormant trucks fill the parking bays, their drivers snatching some sleep before heading north for the coast. At my side, the Brabus EV12 is ticking gently, recovering from one exertion and preparing for another.
Despite the early hour, its driver is awake... very awake. I slept little last night in anticipation of this morning's activities. The keys in my hand give life to the fastest sedan in the world, a car that has been independently tested at 350 km/h, or 217 mph to you and me. That speed was achieved on the Nardo test track in Italy and I won't be trying to match it this morning. But I will be attempting to top 200 mph on a two-lane highway littered with weary truckers.
The autobahnen were one of the few positive legacies of Germany's Nazi regime. Adolf Hitler had them built so the German population could see and appreciate the Fatherland. They were derestricted then and they are derestricted now. Put simply, you can drive as fast as your car, or your common sense, will allow. They're a wonderful dose of anarchy in a country obsessed with rules and regulations.
The engine starts on the first turn of a familiar E-Class key. Mercedes' ubiquitous biturbo V12 has been stroked by Brabus so that it now displaces 6.3 liters. Surgically implanted into the E-Class engine bay, it develops 640 bhp at 5100 rpm and an extraordinary 757 lb-ft of torque at just 1750 rpm. Pause and consider those figures for a moment. Even the much-vaunted SLR McLaren musters only 626 bhp and 576 lb-ft. Whichever way you look at it, the Brabus' output could properly be described as ample.
But the engine isn't loud, not even slightly. "Our customers want the civility of an E200 with the performance of a racecar," says Brabus PR guru, Sven Gramm, who's bravely come along for the ride. That also helps to explain why this car is painted black and wears only the minimum of aerodynamic addenda. Only a carbon-fiber front chin spoiler, subtle side skirts, a trunk lip spoiler and a tiny rear diffuser differentiate this car from a standard E-Class. "We spent four days in the wind tunnel," says Gramm. "Don't worry, it won't take off." I hope he's right.
On to the autobahn and my first ginger mile in a car worth the not insignificant sum of $425,000. The steering system was lifted from a CLS because it's marginally more responsive and offers better feedback than the E-Class helm. The Bilstein suspension system is all new and was developed specifically for this car. "Mercedes' Airmatic system can't cope above 200 mph," says Gramm, "because it can't react fast enough." Apparently, one of the Brabus test drivers had "a huge moment" while testing an Airmatic car on the open road. Nice.
Several things are immediately obvious. This car is subtle to the point of obscurity. As we drift past trucks at more than 100 mph, nobody gives us a second glance. Maybe they're used to seeing Brabus in this part of the world (we're only a few miles from the factory), or maybe they think we're in a diesel. "Everybody knows the E-Class is a taxi," says Gramm with a grin. Right now, I really wish this car wasn't so discreet-if I'm going to pass people at 200 mph, I'd rather they knew I was there.
The second thing to note is that for all its civility, this car is monstrously rapid. I've been fortunate enough to drive some mighty quick road and racecars, but few have ever snapped my head back with such determined force. The effect is so exaggerated that after a few miles I begin to feel like a cartoon character. For the record, this car will hit 200 km/h (124 mph) from rest in 11.7 seconds and 300 km/h (186 mph) in 30.6, but raw figures will never do justice to the sensation of brutal, animalistic thrust.
Not so long ago, this stretch of highway was the road to nowhere. It stopped so abruptly that few people ever bothered to use it and it became Brabus' own private playground. Recently, though, it's been extended and has become more popular. I'm beginning to think that it's too busy and that we've missed our chance, when Gramm motions me forward. "This is a good stretch," he says, "not so many bumps."
I push hard on the throttle and the automatic gearbox searches for a lower ratio. This is the five-speed 'box from the Maybach, but it's been modified and strengthened by Brabus. Everything seems so absurdly easy; you just extend a right toe, take a quarter-to-three grip on the wheel and let this 4,453-pound projectile suck in the horizon. It's as astonishing as it is intoxicating.
At 130 mph, all is calm, civilized. Only the relative speed of the trucks gives any indication that we're already travelling at twice the U.S. legal limit. The Brabus seems so relaxed that it's almost goading me: "Go on, you know you want to. I've got so much more to give." At these speeds, traction is no longer an issue and the E-Class simply scampers forward at the first sign of provocation. There's a clear stretch ahead and I push on to 180 mph, at which point the project takes on a whole new intensity.