"Stop and enjoy the moment, let it really sink in, this doesn't happen often, so when it does you'd better relish every minute of it."
Those were the words that ran through my mind as I arrived at the Nürburgring Nordschleife. Because let's face it, there are many amazing racetracks around the world, but the Ring is a totally different animal. This place really is the peak of the highest mountain for racers and driving enthusiasts alike. It doesn't get any grander or any ballsier than the sensations the Ring throws at you.
It's not just the track, either. It's the culture of the region and the coming together of like-minded people that makes it so special, all converging on this holiest of racing holy grounds to feel that rush, that surge you can only get when the loud pedal is matted during another glorious 13-mile loop around the most challenging and rewarding circuit in the world.
And I'd be doing exactly that in one of the best driver's cars available today, the Scion FR-S (known in the rest of the world as the Toyota GT86). And not in just any FR-S, but KW Suspension's own test mule.
We weren't just going to hoon around the Ring, either, we were going to tour Germany and take in as much of this speed-obsessed land as we possibly could.
Our Deutschland adventure began in a small town called Fichtenburg, nestled in the German countryside approximately an hour away from Stuttgart. This sleepy little town is, a little surprisingly, home to KW Suspension HQ. If you haven't noticed, we are big fans of the brand and have used their coilovers on many of our project cars and test vehicles over the years, so when the opportunity arose to get a rare inside glimpse of the inner workings of the company, we just couldn't resist. After all, it's one thing to test a product, but to be able to see firsthand why and how a company does what it does so well is an entirely different experience.
Contrary to what you may think, KW isn't a massive corporate company built from the ground up by investors looking to line their pockets. It's actually quite the opposite. Started by Klaus Wohlfarth and his brother Jurgen, KW was born from a passion for motorsport, a hobby that inevitably became a business.
As we learned on our tour, what sets KW apart is how nimble and flexible the company is. No matter what the needs of the customers, KW can quickly and easily build a suspension system to their specifications. That's because the entire build process is done in-house and mostly by hand. There's a human element at every point of assembly, and there are very few automated machines, so when there's a need to change something, it's done without expensive retooling.
It's particularly impressive to see that at every step of the manufacturing process, someone is handling the product to ensure it's built right and to spec. Quality control is maintained at every point of the coilover build process, which helps explain why companies enlist KW to build their suspensions, such as AMG's top-tier Black Series suspension.
While the assembly process was an eye-opener, the R&D was jaw dropping. KW Suspension utilizes a seven-post shaker rig, one of only a handful in the suspension manufacturing world, to engineer and refine its coilovers. This garage-sized rig is beyond my scope of understanding, but in simple terms, it can simulate any type of road surface, bumps, cracks, potholes, and so on. It also has the ability to precisely simulate conditions at a specific racetrack, so instead of heading straight to the Nürburgring, KW can simulate the Ring on its shaker rig first and gather valuable data without the car ever moving.
It was becoming clearer and clearer why KW coilovers perform as well as they do, but we weren't finished yet. One last stop at KW's motorsports division was the icing on the cake. There, a team of trained professionals ranging from top-tier race mechanics to ex- and current pro drivers all work in unison to build and support motorsports-grade suspension systems. Say you've got an old Audi 100 you want to go racing with but there aren't any good coilover options on the market. No problem, KW will build you a custom set to meet your needs and exceed your expectations.
As you can probably gather, touring KW's HQ gave me a whole new perspective as to why these coilovers are some of the best on the market. This certainly inspired a lot of confidence when it was time to jump into KW's brand-new GT86, the machine I would soon be piloting around the Nordschleife. It was, of course, outfitted with a set of KW Variant3 coilovers, along with some stickier rubber in the form of Dunlop's Super Sport R-compound track tire (not available in North America) mounted on 17-inch OZ Racing wheels. So not only was I going to drive a GT86 on the Ring, but it would be properly set up. No all-season Prius tires here!
Almost every component of a KW coilover is built in-house, ensuring rigorous quality control.
This seven-post shaker rig is used to simulate different road conditions and racetracks. It’s a crucial element in gathering data to fine-tune KW coilovers for both road and track use.
In the wheel world, there is arguably no brand with more racing pedigree than BBS, and since we were only a two-hour jaunt from the BBS Motorsports facility located in Germany's Black Forest region, we couldn't pass up the chance to not only enjoy some high-speed Autobahn action but to tour yet another world-class facility.
When you arrive at BBS Motorsport in Haslach, a rather new, modern-looking building greets you with waving BBS flags. Inside, Erich Gissler, the managing director of BBS Motosport GmbH, would be our tour guide for the day. After a superb cup of coffee and some introductions, Erich began to explain the history of BBS. What you should know is that Erich has been with BBS since 1978, and his recollection of the 43 years of BBS' existence was nothing short of mind boggling.
I listened intently as Erich explained everything from the origin of the name-Heinrich Baumgartner and Klaus Brand, who were the founders, started the company in Schiltach, Germany (Baumgartner, Brand, Schiltach: BBS)-to the many products BBS has made. As I learned, wheels were only a small part of the business at first. BBS was actually best known for its aerodynamic body pieces, and it also produced seats, steering wheels, spoilers, and much more. Eventually, though, the company began to focus on its current line of business: wheels.
BBS pioneered the three-piece racing wheel and to this day continues to be at the forefront of wheel design and development. It supplies many wheels to OEM manufacturers and has a very strong presence in the motorsport world. We happened to be at the very facility responsible for building the majority of BBS racing wheels.
A tour of the production line revealed state-of-the-art CNC machines, a clean room for assembly and finishing, and a laser-guided quality control station that ensures every wheel leaving BBS Motorsport is 100 percent true without the slightest structural defect. Winning is all about small margins, and BBS realizes that to ensure success, its wheels must meet and exceed the harsh demands of racing.
With another amazing tour under our belts, we headed northward. There was one last piece of unfinished business to take care of, and it was going to be epic.
Although there's an F1 circuit at the Nürburgring, it's the historic Nordschleife, which means the north loop, that we're here for. Built in 1927, Nordschleife feels like no place else on Earth. The cars in the paddock area aren't just the usual sports car suspects. Machines here come in all shapes and sizes, and I mean that literally. Everything from a '70s-era VW Bus to a '69 Mustang to a Lexus LFA can be seen gathered in this rugged, green wonderland for a chance to lap the Ring. I personally think that's what makes the Ring so unique and special. There are no HPDE run groups, no instructors explaining the rules of the track. You don't even have to wear a helmet! It's run what you brung, no matter your skill level, since the Ring is actually a public one-way toll road. For 20 euros, the track is yours (and anyone else's) for one glorious lap, and only you are responsible for your safety.
As you can imagine, the thought of lapping the Ring at full clip with who knows what kind of cars and drivers beside you can seem downright terrifying. Accidents do happen here-a lot. During our day at the Ring, every lap someone went into a wall. It's a pricey endeavour to crash at the Ring, too, because not only will you have your car to repair, you also get hit with a hefty bill to repair the Armco barrier or anything else you damage in the process.
In some way, this policy is brilliant, because the responsibility is all yours. Drive beyond your limit and you're the one left paying for it. Keep everything under control, though, and the reward is a hot lap like no other in the world. It'll change your life.
Due to the large number of tourists bouncing off the walls during our visit and the lengthy cleanups that followed, I wound up only having two hot laps around the track, but sweet baby Jesus were they ever sweet! I can't emphasize enough how complex, challenging, and butt clenching the Nordschleife is, and that's why it's so incredible to drive. One minute you're flat out at 120 mph through S-bends that are slowly gaining altitude, and the next your teeth are chattering through the banked carousel turns. There's so much variety that this track can never truly be mastered, nor can you ever possibly grow tired of it.
There's something to be said about how the Ring flows, too. There's never a moment when you're sawing at the wheel trying to correct for an awkward section of turns. It's all so natural, so perfectly in harmony with the innate terrain, that it feels more like a high-speed blast down a mountain road than a lap at a racetrack. Of course it helps to be driving a proper, well-equipped sports car, and, once again, the FR-S (or technically the GT86) delivered the kind of steering precision and chassis balance that effortlessly unified man and machine.
With the KW V3 coilovers and sticky Dunlop rubber, there's no question my level of driving excitement and confidence was heightened even further. Instead of being at the mercy of stock, all-season rubber, the Dunlops provided gobs of grip without degrading any steer feel or tossability of the FR-S. With the V3s added to the mix, everything was sharpened up, and cornering power was astounding, yet the car's impeccable chassis balance and neutral handling remained unchanged.
I did my best to take full advantage of the car's superb handling, which meant it was untouchable in the corners (aside from some Porsche race cars, of course). The only problem was when it was time to put the pedal to the metal. Unfortunately, the Ring brought out the GT86's main weakness: its modest power output. Shifting into Fifth gear through a long, fast, upward section of the track saw the GT86 struggle to accelerate. Granted, I was moving at 115 mph, but boy would I have loved another 50 hp here.
Truth be told, I shouldn't be complaining, because the moment I pulled into the paddock I realized I was grinning from ear to ear and it would stay there for pretty much the entire flight home. For those who've been to the Ring, you'll understand why I spent that flight scheming about how to get myself back there as soon as humanly possible. Forget an all-inclusive vacation on some tropical island, if you're a car guy worth your salt, there is only one true paradise and it's called the Nürburgring Nordschleife.
VW Scirocco R
I have to give a big shout out to VW for being so gracious and lending us a brand-new '12 Scirocco R for the duration of Germany visit. It's always a treat to be able to sample vehicles North America doesn't get, and the Scirocco is one of them.
It's a shame, too, because this 265hp 2.0L turbo packs a surprising punch and would easily climb to 150 mph on the autobahn. Perhaps its sleek, aerodynamic exterior is why the Scirocco R feels so poised and grounded at those speeds, or perhaps it's that fine German engineering working its magic. Either way, call us impressed.
Sitting inside a sport coupe for long periods of time can leave one cramped and uncomfortable, but the Scirocco R proved remarkably comfortable. Its cabin layout is driver centric, while the R-specific steering wheel is thick and screams performance.
Thanks to Germany's vast selection of twisty and windy roads, I had ample time to explore the handling characteristics of the R. I wasn't necessarily able to drive it at the limit, since there were two more bodies, luggage, and camera gear nestled tightly within the confines of the interior, but even with a full house, the Scirocco R felt composed and better balanced than any FWD VW I've driven in the past.
When the time came to part with the R, I couldn't help but feel sad because it would likely be the last time I'd ever drive a Scirocco R. Unless, of course, VW has a change of heart and brings this exciting sport coupe stateside.