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.
The force curve is not linear, it's exponential. Roughly speaking, a car travelling at three times the national limit generates nine times the energy. At 200 mph, any commercial airliner will already be airborne. "Both aerodynamically and mechanically, everything gets really serious when you top 200," says Gramm. "We learned a huge amount with the previous generation (205 mph) EV12 and that helped us with this car." Creating a 220-mph car is not easy-just ask Bugatti.
I spot a stream of trucks on the horizon and lift a little, passing them at little more than 170 mph. It's a pointless exercise, of course. Hitting a truck at 200 mph, 170 mph or even 120 mph would have the same calamitous effect, but at least it makes me feel better. God only knows what the trucker must have thought about being passed by a black missile at 4:45 a.m. Maybe we woke him up.
My thoughts turn to the tires, which remain arguably the most critical component in any high speed run. The EV12 reached 350km/h while riding on Pirellis, but it's on Michelins today. "The Pirellis are rated for 350 and the Michelins for 340," explains Gramm. "But the Michelins-Pilot Sport Extra Loads-offer greater comfort." On this car they're filled with nitrogen so their pressure is less affected by temperature changes.
The road clears again and I can see for a mile ahead. I bury the throttle, but the acceleration is less urgent now. Every additional mph seems to be more of a struggle; it's almost as if we're going uphill. The needle swings past 300 km/h, or 186 mph. Brabus has had the speedo independently verified and we know at these speeds it's accurate to within a couple of km/h.
Hang on; be calm; don't make any sudden movements... 310 km/h. The wind and tire noise rises dramatically as the guard rail flashes past the window. It feels fast, fucking fast. I try to straddle the center line, giving myself some room to maneuver. The road swings left and I apply a couple of degrees of steering lock. At 100 mph you wouldn't even notice this curve, but at nearly 200 mph it becomes a genuine challenge. The car feels light, even nervous, and I sense that so many of its parts are operating at or near their maximum capacity.
I'm feeling anxious and editor Bidrawn's words come back to me. "This silly little feature ain't worth the death of my favorite limey," he'd said. "And if you die, I'll haunt yer ghost till it's dead too." The road straightens out and I lean back on the gas... 315km/h. Sorry Les, my ghost will have to wait.
318... 319... 320 (200 mph)... 321... I want to make sure... 322... 323... The vibrations are huge and the wind rush extraordinary. On a public road, I'm traveling at a pace of which few cars have ever been capable, and I'm breaking no laws. From behind my right shoulder, photographer Salt calmly captures the moment, and then I hit the brakes.
Twelve- (yes twelve) piston front calipers crunch into 14.8-inch ceramic discs as the speedo needle sweeps left. This car stops even better than it goes. After what I've just experienced, 150 mph feels pedestrian and I have to talk myself down to a more modest speed. The adrenaline is still pumping.
There will be those who will say that what I've just achieved is mad, foolhardy and downright irresponsible. Maybe they're right, but some things in life just need to be done. If Brabus is going to build a 200-plus-mph road car, then somebody will need to test it. And this morning, that somebody was me.
The Ten Commandments Of Autobahn BlastingThou shalt have xenon headlightsThou shalt activate thine headlamps and foglamps even in full sunshineThou shalt leave thine left indicator permanently blinkingThou shalt have abundant credit on thy plastic for multiple refueling stopsThou shalt alter thy personality from tolerant citizen to arrogant, selfish elitistThou shalt flash furiously at any fool in the middle lane who looks like he's even thinking of moving outThou shalt zap across to the inside lane at every opportunity in order to set an xample of lane discipline to the ignoramus pootling along in the middleThou shalt studiously ignore the abusive gestures of such ignoramusesThou shalt not flash a Porsche to get out of thy way, or be damned to breathehis exhaust for eternityThou shalt be very wary of vehicles bearing Eastern European number plates