Premium automakers are quietly abandoning their informal agreement that limits the top speed of their high-performance production cars to 250kph.
Though capable of reaching speeds of more than 300kph in some cases, carmakers such as Audi, BMW and Lexus have been using electronics to hold back their specialty models.
But now those carmakers are trying to match the tuned-for-speed performance models of rivals Mercedes-Benz and Porsche.
Although overall sales in this segment are small, the margins are high. To win in this ultracompetitive subsegment, automakers must satisfy customer demand for cars they can drive at 300kph or even 320kph.
The only place in Europe to legally drive that fast is on unrestricted portions of the German highway system.
BMW initiated the voluntary limit in 1987 by limiting the top speed of its V-12 750i sedan. This was done to defuse efforts by German politicians to impose a speed limit on the autobahn.
Mercedes, Audi and others adopted the voluntary limit; Porsche didn't.
By September, BMW could introduce high-performance models from its M division with an electronic cutoff raised to as high as 320kph, insiders say.
"BMW will find a responsible solution," board member Burkhard Göschel said. He emphasized that BMW-owned M GmbH, which produces the low-volume, high-performance M3, M5 and M6, is a separate company.
That's exactly the approach at Mercedes-Benz, where the AMG models can - if customers request it - be programmed to allow top speeds of 280kph, or 300kph for supercharged and turbocharged models. Mercedes' performance-oriented Maybach 57S is limited to 275kph.
Regular Mercedes-Benz and BMW cars would continue to held to a top speed of 250kph.
Audi will also allow speeds above 250kph with its R9 sports car based on the Le Mans Quattro concept due in late 2006, said a company source. As a test, Audi sold a few RS6 Plus models last year that were governed at 280kph. No public discussion took place.
Lexus executives say the next-generation SC sports car and LS luxury sedan will be the first ungoverned Lexus models, but Lexus does not want to take the lead.
"We are waiting for Audi to make the leap," an executive said.
The rising speed capabilities of commonplace cars have challenged the "hierarchy" on the autobahn. The six-cylinder, 239hp Porsche Boxster can reach 256kph because it is ungoverned, allowing it to overtake more expensive and powerful cars electronically limited to 250kph.
"We needed to respond to our customers," said a German auto executive. "It is ridiculous to have a high-performance car being passed by ungoverned six-cylinder vehicles."
CSM analyst Arne Behlmer agrees.
"It is about time carmakers, organizations and politicians take note of reality," he said. "The 250kph cutoff has existed only on paper for years because many customers [take] new cars and replace the engine chips."