Germany has given us many ultimate driving machines.
Since Karl Benz first built what is often considered to be the first practical motor vehicle, Germany has kept the ball rolling with its consistent quality of engineering and innovation, despite the massive setback that was World War II. Born of the fallout of the war, Volkswagen emerged with the Beetle as its new starting point while BMW traded aircraft engines for motorbikes and cars. Audi's long and complicated beginnings finally solidified in the 1960s while Mercedes-Benz grew from Karl Benz and Daimler before becoming a brand in 1926. Opel's roots trace back to sewing machines and then bicycles before building its first car in 1899.
Porsche was founded by Ferdinand Porsche and started as a development and consulting company. Then came Porsche's involvement in the Beetle and the Porsche 64 was born in 1939 using components from the small family vehicle.
There are other smaller German manufacturers, but the big five shaped the German automotive industry into what it is today and all still have a dramatic effect on the world stage. A comprehensive list would become a book, but these are some of what we consider the best German cars of all time. Let's just take the Volkswagen Beetle as a given.
When it comes to game-changing cars, the Audi Quattro is right up there. The Quattro four-wheel-drive system was developed for rallying in the 1980s and left every other manufacturer in rallying playing catch up. Audi capitalized in the system outside of motorsport and every Audi road car built since then has used Quattro technology. That has made Audi the go-to premium brand for all-wheel-drive for decades now.
If you held a gun to our heads, we simply could not pick a generation of 911 to highlight here. It's one of the oldest sports car names out there and has been in continuous production with its signature rear-mounted engine layout since 1963. It's the quintessential driver's car and as a result, has a cult-like following and has continuously and successfully evolved to remain relevant at the top of the tree as both a road car and race car.
The MK1 Golf was intended as a front-wheel-drive and water-cooled engined replacement for the Volkswagen Beetle in 1974. Ultimately, it didn't replace the Beetle, but it has become one of the top-selling vehicles in the world and consistently won awards and accolades through its history. It is the performance version we want to highlight here for lighting the fuse on what became known as the hot hatch. The Golf GTI set the benchmark for an affordable and practical sporty car in the 1980s and helped spawn some of the most fun and affordable hot hatches we've driven since then.
When it comes to building performance models of production cars, BMW's in-house motorsport division set the bar high when it turned its hand to the E30 generation 3 Series. The M3 became a monumental success in motorsport and that translated on the road with fast yet refined cars that are a delight to drive. Since the E30 model stormed onto the scene in 1986, every 3 Series since has had an outrageously fast M division version.
If there's something that destroys the stereotype that German engineers are cold and clinical, it's the Mercedes-Benz 300 SL (the SL stands for Super Light in reference to the light tubular frame construction). The 300 SL was born a race car for the first two years of its lifespan, but in 1954 it became a masterpiece of a production car. The 300 SL was the first Mercedes-Benz to have wide success outside of its home market and gave Mercedes a new flavor in the US as a luxury performance carmaker.
While the 911 has become Porsche's signature dish, the 356 Speedster set the standard by which all 911s would follow. It was a lightweight, nimble, balanced-handling, rear-engined, rear-wheel drive, sports car that also oozed with style despite being on the basic side when it came to luxury and convenience. It flew under the radar for the first two years of production, and only 50 of them were built. However, it won races and sales snowballed to 76,000 or so 356 Speedsters being built in total over four generations.
The story of the 328 started with a brochure being handed out to select people in 1935, then BMW kept the car low key right up until it rolled into the Nürburgring paddock in June 1936. Even then, the company downplayed it as just a 2-liter sports car with a slightly more streamlined body. However, when it showed up to the International Eiffel Race and left everyone for dead, journalists started to realize they were seeing the dawn of a new era. It was the most advanced sports car of its time, but the production of the road car was slow to start with while the race cars just kept winning.
Not only was the 328 fast with its inline-6 engine, but beautiful as well. The influence of the 328 was recognized in 1999 by a panel of worldwide journalists as a top 25 finalist for the Car of the Century award.
With modern styling built on the shoulders of the 300 SL, the Mercedes-AMG GT is a stylish brute of a car. With its sleek and sweeping lines and luxury interior, you could be forgiven for thinking it might be just a classically themed grand tourer. However, under the hood is a gurgling beast of a 4.0-liter twin-turbo V8 engine built by AMG and chassis tuning that can make a few mid-engined supercars blush.
When it comes to iconic German cars, the M5 is the modern heavy hitter. It proceeded the M3 as the performance version of a series car. The first M5 was hand-built in 1985 using the E28 535i chassis and had a modified version of the M1, which was the grandfather of the M cars. It was the fastest production car at the time and since then, like the 3 Series, each generation has had an M version.
When Mercedes-Benz decided that a 6.3-liter V8 engine from the 600, a car that would be on the list if it was about dictators' favorite cars, the automaker created something wonderful. It was the ultimate executive cruiser and a true super-saloon that paved the road for AMG.