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I awoke at 8:00 am on Tuesday, July 24th, 2005 to the sound of my cell phone alarm. I quickly jumped out of bed, as the day when I get to drive the autobahn and see the Volkswagen headquarters had finally arrived!
“Hannah! Get up! We’re going to Wolfsburg!” I said with extreme Volkswagen-dork enthusiasm. She retorted with a subtle, slightly muffled, “Ugghhhh….”
After a morning shower and some overpriced scones and juice at the hotel restaurant, we got down to the parking garage by 9:30 am. The night before, the concierge printed out driving directions for me, albeit in German. “No worries, it’s very easy. Take A5 to A7 to A39.” The directions indicated a distance of 233 miles from Frankfurt to Wolfsburg, and a driving time of 3 hours and 47 minutes.
While in the garage, we drove around for about 5 minutes trying to find the exit. Once we found the exit, I forgot that I was supposed to have the parking ticket validated first. So I drove around for another 5 minutes trying to find where the booth to pay was, but I couldn’t find one. Sure enough, back upstairs right next to the elevator was the payment machine. I must have missed this due to my excitement about finally going to Wolfsburg. After we got out of the garage and onto the road, our trip started at 9:45 am – slightly later than I had wanted.
Once on the road, the signs and directions were a bit confusing. I had a bad feeling that we were going to get very, very lost. Our Golf V TDI was equipped with a Blaupunkt TravelPilot, but it said the navigation wasn’t installed. Luckily we found a navigation disk in the glove box, flipped down the screen, put it in, and sure enough the navigation started to work. One problem was now solved! The other problem was switching the navigation from Spanish to English. After about 10 minutes of fiddling, we were able to switch to a Blaupunkt indicated “American”, and the nice lady on the navigation then spoke in “miles” and “feet” – it was quite nice. We plugged in “Wolfsburg,” it calculated the route, and we were golden.
Once we got out of the Frankfurt vicinity, the 120 km/h speed limit was removed and the roads opened up. This was my first time ever driving a TDI, and I have to say I was rather impressed. The engine is smooth at speed and has plenty of pull. For the most part, we were cruising around 160 km/h (100 mph), but once, downhill with a slight tailwind, the car showed a speedometer indicated 206 km/h (129 mph). Even at these speeds, in a base model Golf, the car was completely controlled. The change from the Golf IV (of which I’ve had three) to the Golf V is like driving a completely different car.
In the middle of our trip, we hit a lot of construction traffic. In construction zones, the speed limit drops to 80 km/h (50 mph), and unlike driving in the States, people actually obey the speed limits – wow. The road went down to one lane, and after about a 20 minute hold up, we cleared the construction and continued on our way.
When we were within 80 km of Wolfsburg, the weather gods decided it would be a nice time to rain, just like it had for the past five days we were in Germany. We arrived in Wolfsburg at 1:00 pm and followed the signs to AutoStadt. While driving into the city, you pass the enormous Volkswagen factory on your left. AutoStadt is at the end of the factory, across from the Volkswagen Arena. The sheer size of AutoStadt, and the fact that all the signs were in German, made it hard to figure out where to park. Of course, I ended up parking in the farthest parking lot away from the entrance. And it was still raining. And the subsequent whining began.
After a 10 minute leisurely stroll in the rain, we arrived at the main building where you get your admissions card. We were hungry, so we decided to eat first, as the admissions building also houses the dining centers. When you walk in, you are given a dining card. The lady who gave us the card then proceeded to speak in German, presumably telling us how to use the card, and of course I had no clue what she was saying. So, I gave her the I have no clue what you’re saying but I’ll act as if I do because I don’t want to be a tourist and ask if you speak English head nod, and we proceeded on our merry way. Essentially, you order your food, they swipe your card, and you pay when you leave; this reminded me of D-Hall in college, but with considerably better food.
After lunch, we proceeded to the admissions desk, and 28 euros later we had our two admission cards. We were given a map and told to go outside and turn left (this time in English!) and start there.
AutoStadt consists of an automotive museum, and then each Volkswagen brand exhibit (Bentley, Lamborghini, SEAT, Skoda, Audi, and Volkswagen). We started at the museum, and when you walk in the museum there is an escalator that goes to the 4th floor, and then next to it there are stairs that stop off at each level. Not knowing what to do, we took the stairs and went to the 2nd floor. When we were walking around, we realized we were always going in the opposite direction of everyone else. Then we figured out that we were supposed to take the escalator to the top floor and work our way down. But no – we were the two Americans that were constantly walking against the crowd of people.
After spending about an hour in the museum, we had to move on to the brand exhibits. The rental car had to be returned by 8:00 pm, and by this time it was already 2:45. Because of the time constraint, we decided to skip SEAT, Skoda and Bentley, and hit Audi, Lamborghini, and Volkswagen.
I was expecting to see more cars while in the exhibits, but that wasn’t the case. The Audi exhibit catered to their image of having “The Technological Edge”, as the exhibit tried to be futuristic or ahead of the curve, whatever the curve may be. At the top level, there was a LeMans video with one of their Audi LeMans cars in front of the screen.
The Lamborghini exhibit runs every 30 minutes during normal business hours, and we were lucky enough to just make the next showing. The building is a relatively narrow black rectangle that is three stories tall. You enter on the mid level, and it is fairly dark inside. In front of you when you walk in there is a Murcielago mounted to the wall. Before the show starts, an announcer comes in and says something for about two minutes in German, and then the show starts. It’s not much of a show other than some lighting and fog effects and the sound of the engine in the background. Midway through the show, the Lamborghini flips out onto the outside of the building.
Saving the best for last, we went to the Volkswagen exhibit. When you enter the building, all you see is a dome in the middle, with four walkways into it. We managed to piece together that inside the dome is a screen and they show a video, so we waited outside in the chairs until it was our turn to go inside. Once inside, it’s almost like being in a planetarium, but instead of looking at stars you get to see Volkswagens (works for me!). They played four small videos, almost like the BMW films, each about five minutes long. After the films were over, you leave the dome and when exiting, you pass through a room with a special edition Golf V in it.
Once we left the Volkswagen exhibit it was almost 4:00 pm, about time for us to leave. We spent about another 15 minutes in the New Car Delivery Center, where they had a new Golf GTI, a Fox, Polo, Golf Plus, and a new Passat in the showroom. I spent some time browsing the parts department where they had a plethora of Volkswagen shirts, but I didn’t buy any because I was told I had plenty of Volkswagen shirts already.
We hit the road at about 4:15 pm, and conveniently it started to rain again. The navigation put us into Frankfurt at 7:45, just before the 8:00 rental deadline. Fortunately, we didn’t hit any traffic at all on the way back and we were able to keep up a good speed and we got into the Frankfurt vicinity in just under three hours. We stopped before the city to get some gas, as the TDI went over 500 miles on one tank at autobahn speeds – very impressive. After a 56 euro (78 USD) fill up (ouch!), we were back on the road and we returned the car at 7:30 pm, 30 minutes ahead of schedule.
After 69 euros for the rental car, 20 euros for lunch, 28 euros for admission, and 56 euros for gas, I had no regrets about the money I just spent. Driving the Autobahn and visiting AutoStadt was everything I thought it would be. The only thing I would do differently would be to rent a Porsche and make sure I had time to do a Volkswagen factory tour. Oh well, there’s always next time.
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