After a speedy but uneventful 90-minute drive north from Berlin on the Autobahn, being passed regularly at our average 160 km/h clip in our 75-hp Volkswagen Up! city cars, the twin glass towers of Volkswagen’s Autostadt auto theme park welcome you to Wolfsburg.
The 800 vehicles within its glass walls and 20 floors of vehicles make it easily one of the highest-profile parking garages on the planet.
The widely varying VW vehicles within provide a continually shifting kaleidoscope of colour to the architecture, a sight that will never look exactly the same no matter how many times you visit.
Although it’s the long-time factory here that helped define the city of Wolfsburg – a city of 121,000 – the town punches leagues above its weight class economically, with a luxurious Ritz-Carlton hotel and a relatively new 30,000-seat soccer stadium (Volkswagen Arena) that saw the Wolfsburg side crowned Bundesliga champions in 2009. This is all thanks to the growth of Volkswagen in general, but was also kick-started by the opening of the Autostadt theme park in 2000.
Autostadt, meaning car city in German, has made Wolfsburg a tourist destination. More than 165,000 people picked up their recently ordered new Volkswagens last year; 1.9 million visitors in 2010 visited to experience the surreal immersion in automotive history, culture, technology and corporate confidence (some might say largesse).
New VW owners and visitors alike can marvel at the engineering spectacle of two robotic elevators in each glass tower that rise and swing around a central pillar, extracting each car with balletic mechanical precision, a process that places and removes the cars from the towers usually within 24 hours. The cars are moved on special skids that are then placed on a purpose-built “car shuttles,” an elaborate conveyor system to transport your car to you without a single click on the odometer.
To allow visitors and owners to experience the towers from the inside, VW engineers designed a rotating glass module/elevator that uses the same caster system as the cars, said our tour guide, Astrid Plenske-Muller.
The glass pod, which is removed just as a vehicle is, prevents the public from touching the cars, which made the insurance folks happy. Plus it rises up to provide visitors a view of the 20 floors of cars, and then from the top, a panoramic view of the immaculately green (even in late December) grounds, the various lagoons sprinkled around the rolling landscape, the modernist architecture, the popular skating rink, and the huge toboggan hill available to visitors.
Originally, the idea behind Autostadt was to create a world-class delivery centre for Volkswagen vehicles, something its German rivals offered in the mid-1990s, but VW didn’t. But the idea grew in scale and drama. From the towers, vehicles are robotically delivered to a massive customer presentation centre that is organized like an airport, with a multitude of restaurants, shops and cafés, as well as gates and ever-changing car names up on big boards. These info boards direct customers on where to go for an explanation of the vehicle’s features, and to ask questions of a product expert.
This facility can deliver any Volkswagen-branded vehicle, even though the nearby plant makes only the Golf, and its many variants, the Tiguan crossover that’s sold in North America, and the Touran that isn’t. Unfortunately, there’s no program that allows buyers outside Europe to pick up their vehicles there.
For those less enraptured by the automobile, its history, environmental impact, technology or design, VW has ensured there are other attractions. There are tours of the on-site Mittleland Canal, 13 restaurants, a Ritz-Carlton with a spa and pool and various seasonal festivals: an Alpine Christmas one while we toured, a regular modern dance festival in May called the Movimentos Festival, and a floating island with a water show over the summer.
But most visitors are primarily interested in the cars. After the glass towers, we headed to the ZeitHaus, the automotive museum that VW says is the most visited car museum in the world. Volkswagen stresses that the museum showcases the entire history of the automobile, including a replica of Karl Benz’s 1886 Motorwagen three-wheeler that’s generally – but not universally – acknowledged as the world’s first production automobile, as well as other historically significant vehicles, including a Ford Model T, a Bugatti Type 57C Atlantic (among other Bugattis), a 1930 Cadillac V-16 and huge tail-finned 1959 Eldorado, a Jaguar E-Type, among 190 or so others, including of course a generous helping of VW Beetles and dune buggies built off the same chassis.
There are also seven VW Group pavilions, a separate building for pretty much each car brand under its ever-expanding umbrella: Audi, Seat, Porsche, Lamborghini, Skoda, VW, VW commercial vehicles, and the Premium Clubhouse, which showcases Bugatti models.
Each brand’s building is tailored to showcase the attributes of the brand. The Lambo pavilion showcases a smoke show and V-12 engine revving sounds, until the Lamborghini Mucielago mounted on its exterior wall rotates to become a modern art piece inside.
There’s also a fully equipped DesignStudio, where kids can digitally modify their choice of six vehicles and print out or download the result, another where little ones can receive driving tests in toy cars, and their first unofficial drivers’ licence.
For adults, there’s an off-road track to test the Tiguan and Touareg on challenging courses, a series of courses on sustainability and automotive restoration, plus a high-performance driving and skid control school complete with pavement sprinklers. The list of activities to tempt car enthusiasts goes on and on, with details available at autostadt.de.
While it’s unfortunate that North Americans can’t pick up a new Volkswagen in this auto playground, Autostadt is unique enough to deserve a place on any car enthusiast’s bucket list. And with the no-speed-limit Autobahn surrounding it, the drive is quick and possibly well more than half the fun.