What makes a German car a German car?



Driving a German car is usually a source of pride, and the Volkswagen Golf is the perfect example why this is so

SINGAPORE — If you’re reading this on your mobile phone, stop and ask yourself this: where exactly is your phone from? It might be, say, Korean in brand, but it was probably made in China and it likely runs software written in Silicon Valley… possibly by programmers from India.

The point is that the world is much more international in nature, which can make it tough to assign a single national identity to a piece of industrial design.

But there’s something about German cars that makes them very German. In fact, the modern motorcar may be a product of collaboration between thousands of people from dozens of different countries, but there remains something ineffably cultural about cars that practically makes them national symbols on wheels.

The Volkswagen Golf is a perfect example of this principle. It’s so quintessentially Teutonic in so many ways that the next time you see one, look out for these characteristics that help to answer the vexing question of what makes a German car a German car.

Readiness for high speeds

German cars aren’t necessarily super powerful, but they’re built for the high-speed autobahn network, which is still unrestricted in certain stretches. That means the cars are designed accordingly; for example, the Golf’s speed-sensitive power steering system makes the steering light and easy to twirl at low speeds, but on the highway the system dials down the assistance to make the steering weightier, so it provides feedback.

Powerful anti-lock brakes and the Electronic Stability Programme are other features that German carmakers introduced that make driving safer overall, but especially so at high speeds.

In fact, the conditions on the autobahn set the engineering tone for German cars in many ways.

Efficiency

The Germans are among the most environmentally conscious people on Earth — if you get the chance, ask one how they have to sort and separate their trash for recycling there.

That drives a desire to get as much out of as little fuel as possible, which is why the Golf comes with fuel-saving technologies such as TSI engines and the efficient yet sporty DSG transmission. No one says you can’t have fun while doing your bit for Mother Nature, after all.

German cars are often dedicated to aerodynamic efficiency, too. That’s about two things: reducing high-speed lift (which makes a car unstable) while cutting wind resistance (which is a major force that engines have to overcome).

The Golf is among the most aerodynamic cars in its class, with a drag co-efficient score (a measurement of wind resistance) of only 0.28Cd. That’s incredibly hard to achieve with a hatchback shape.

Precision manufacturing

For the longest time, only Germany was able to produce the perfectly spherical tips used to make the end of ball-point pens. That precision extends to car manufacturing, too. The crisp, geometric lines of the Golf suggest as much, but look more closely at certain details: the way a crease extends from the front wings of the car and across both doors in a perfectly straight line, for example.

Getting those surfaces to line up perfectly takes effort and accuracy. Have a look, too, at the gaps between the Golf’s body panels. You’ll find them even and consistent. That doesn’t happen by accident.

Solidity

While you’re looking over the Golf’s bodywork, take a moment to examine how the roof joins the sides of the car. If you look closely enough (and you’ll have to), you might notice an impossibly tight weld that joins the two body panels.

That’s down to a laser welding technique that not only looks perfect (other car manufacturers cover the weld there with a strip of plastic) but adds rigidity. That in turn increases safety and leads to more precise handling, because a rigid body allows the suspension to operate exactly as it was designed to — there’s that high-speed suitability in action again.

That sense of solidity is also probably why the cabin materials of a German car feel so plush. While the Golf’s interior plastics feel like premium material, they are very likely that way more to express the overall solidity of the car itself.

Clarity

The instruments, displays and instruments in a German car like the Golf are bright, clear and well-laid out. That’s down to driving culture yet again: a car with clear and easy-to-read displays and simple, intuitive controls is easier to drive safely at high speed.

It might just be a reflection of the logical nature of the German mind, too, but even though cars like the Golf come with advanced features, it’s never difficult to find the button or switch that you want to operate them.

Obsessiveness

Perhaps the main thing that makes a car feel German is the obsessive way it seems to be engineered, the tendency to overdo things slightly. Take a look at the wind seals on the doors of the Golf, for example. They’re double-seal items, just to keep wind noise out that little bit more. The Golf’s front windscreen car actually has a sound-absorbing layer built into it, too. That shows how if you’re going to reduce noise, doing it the German way means doing it obsessively.

NOW WATCH WHAT WE MEAN: Oh, the Germanity! 

PLUS: What makes a German person German?
Whatever comes to mind when you think of a German bloke very likely involves leather pants, plenty of beer and unfailing punctuality. Of course there’s more to German-ness than that, but since it’s difficult to describe a culture without resorting to crude stereotypes, how about trying to understand them through language? These three uniquely German words and phrases give an insight into the Teutonic mindset:

Innerer Schweinehund (inner pig dog)
That’s the lazy git in all of us that we have to overcome in order to achieve things. Seems a bit harsh to call it a pig dog, though. It just wants five minutes more of sleep.
Sitzfleisch (Sit or seat meat)
You say I’m dogged or determined, the Germans say I have a lot of “seat meat”. It basically describes the ability to slog through something tough or boring. Sitzfleisch is about fortitude, not having a rear end like Kim Kardashian’s.
Erklärungsnot (explanation poverty)
If you’ve ever been caught doing something naughty or didn’t do something someone (probably your wife) told you to, and couldn’t come up with a reason (or excuse) for your bad behaviour, then you’ve been in Erklärungsnot. Yup, the Germans think so little of having no excuse for something that they have a word for it. It would have been inexcusable not to.

 

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Leow Ju-Len
Leow Ju-Len is a lot older than he behaves. He's been writing about cars for 23 years. Someday he might do it coherently. Ju-Len believes in world peace and V8s, but not necessarily in that order.