Pandas, Apes and Kugas, Oh My!

No, I have not died and I have not given up on this website. You can go ahead and delete your heartfelt concerned emails. To answer your question, the reason why this site has been stagnant for over two weeks is because I took a well deserved vacation to Italy and Germany and, during my time there, went out of my way to not use any technology that is generally used to keep in contact with the outside world. No email, no Facebook, no Twitter, no computers, no texting or cell phones. Nothing. While suddenly forcing yourself into this lifestyle has the remarkable ability to clear your mind and truly make you more relaxed, I’ve discovered that if you do so without warning, your friends, colleagues and loved ones become concerned. Apologies for that!

One piece of technology that I did use during my trip was the ol’ camera to document the truly awe inspiring countries that both Italy and Germany are. As Canadians, we pride ourselves on our unbeatable friendliness, but truthfully the Italians and Germans are just as deserving of the title. Despite obvious language barriers, the locals of any region are happy to try to help you out or just to learn more about you. I quickly learned that “a bit” as a response to the question “Sprechen Sie Englisch?” really meant that yes, not only do they speak it but they speak it quite well. In fact the reason why many Italians and Germans will go out of their way to speak to you is to practice their English. If you understand what they are trying to say then that means they are getting better at it. If you don’t, the look of disappointment and frustration is not necessarily because of the language barrier, but because they know they have some work to do.

While my vacation wasn’t strictly an automotive holiday, I did of course get the chance to experience many different cars in many different ways in an extremely different car culture. This is the saga of my experience.

First things first, getting around in Italy by car might be the most chaotic thing I’ve ever experienced. I was prepared for small roads and no right turns on red, but what was unexpected was the blatant disregard of any road rules or laws by pretty much everyone. Driving in Italy is a bit of a rat-race. Everyone needs to be going faster than the next guy and everyone is willing to tailgate, cut you off, pass on the shoulder and run through stop signs in order to do it. It’s not enough to get to where you’re going in Italy, you, apparently, need to make good time while you’re doing it, even if that means jeopardizing your own safety and the safety of others. There are speed limits in Italy but they do matter in the slightest since the Polizia rarely enforces them.

My first day driving in Italy was in Bologna. The plan was to rent a car to get us to the Lamborghini museum to the Ferrari museum and hopefully to some great rural country roads in the process. Our rental was the Fiat Punto (above) which I realized is Italy’s Honda Civic. They are everywhere. And to be honest it’s a bit hard to understand why because the Punto is lacking in power and refinement. If this car were to be sold in North America as is, Fiat might as well start packing its bags and heading back to Italy right now. Our standards have gotten so high that this Punto really seemed like a bit of a minger at first. Its handling abilities are minimal and there is little to no steering feel. This was extremely disappointing when we found some of the twistiest roads I’ve ever been on in the mountains. Having a Ferrari 458 Italia blow past us just rubbed salt into the wound.  It does, however, look pretty good and hatch space would be adequate for our shores. The thing is, as unimpressed as I was with the Punto initially, it almost won me over by the end of the day. This is a car that has character and for all its faults, finding a car with true character these days is about as difficult as shifting the Punto’s gears. It is, after all, more fun to drive a slow car fast than a fast car slow. And that’s exactly what I did on Italian highways. The Punto seemed to love every minute of it despite giving everything it had to try to keep up with my commands.

At the Ferrari museum I was presented with the opportunity to drive a Ferrari of my choice for 10 minutes. For a price, obviously. This is something that I would kick myself over an over again for the rest of my life if I passed on the opportunity to drive an Italian automotive icon through the streets of Italy. So for 70 euros I chose the F430 Spider to take on the 16 kilometer trek around town. Driving a Ferrari around town is like eating a salad at a steakhouse you say? Well keep in mind that those Italian speed limits don’t matter and the particular area that I’d be driving was quite light in terms of traffic. Case in point, on a long smooth straightway, I was able to get the prancing horse up to 205 km/h. And to prove that the polizia truly do not enforce speed limits, I blew past a waiting cruiser and got a wave from the cop in the process. Starting the Spider is truly akin to awakening a sleeping beast. It’s loud and certainly could give anyone goosebumps. The exhaust note is pass-out kind of awesome and the handling is absolutely divine. I truly felt at one with the machine and it fit almost like a glove. Gear shifts are the quickest that I’ve ever experienced and contrary to what is usually said about supercars, I didn’t find it particularly difficult to drive around town. It’s not terribly uncomfortable and outward visibility, while not crystal clear, isn’t as obstructed as I thought it would be. If I could do it again, I’d pay almost anything to keep it for longer.

At the Lamborghini museum there was obviously a host of impressive models to be sure, but oddly, one of the models that stuck out the most to me was the one pictured above. This Gallardo was actually donated to the Polizia by Lamborghini and was actually put into the fleet for policing duties. Obviously they didn’t use it to hand out parking tickets, this was used as you’d expect to catch speeders. Since in Italy supercars are slightly more common than you’d expect, obviously it would take the same amount of muscle to keep up with that 599 that decided they don’t want to pay a fine that day. And yes, despite my proclaiming over and over again that they polizia don’t enforce speeding, they do enforce excessive speeding. In addition to highway patrol duties, this car was used as an organ donor transplant car since obviously ever second counts in that situation. Perhaps the reason why this Lamborghini, despite the precence of historic icons and current day icons, was the most memorable for me is because as a kid, I have memories of having posters of Lamborghini police cars on my wall. I remember loving the pics of them having another Lambo pulled over on the side of the road. It was also my favourite police car to use in Need for Speed: High Stakes. And to see it in person is a bit like seeing a childhood hero in person.

During our time in Sicily, it seemed like a good idea to rent a car to drive around the most of the island for 5 days. Sicily has some neat little spots and the locals are quite friendly, but a good portion is still run by the mafia. As a result, obvious poverty is sprinkled throughout Sicily and while driving on the curvy roads can be fun, you really do need to watch for the massive garbage piles as a result of a recent garbage strike.

As pictured above, our rental was a Fiat Panda. Famous automotive journalist James May has nothing but praise for the Panda calling it smart and sensible. He likes it so much that he went and bought one. Truthfully, I have no idea what he’s on about. The reason why I don’t look entirely happy in the picture is because I was generally entirely unhappy with the Panda. It is slow, noisy, unrefined, cheap feeling, bad on gas, has little cargo room, can’t take a corner, can’t pick up speed, has dreadful brakes and generally looks rather stupid. Even the name is idiotic. With mostly any bad car, you can generally pick out at least one good thing to say about it:

“Well, at least it’s nice to look at” or “at least it’s safe” or “at least it’s reliable”. Not with the Panda. Never have I driven a car that was generally bad at everything. Now perhaps, to be a bit fair, this is not necessarily the Panda’s fault. The model Panda  that we had was clearly not new and I’m not really sure why Hertz would give a out an old car to rent, but I later found out that this kind of nonsensical way of running a car rental business is the norm for Hertz. So as a result, it’s quite possible that Fiat has addressed a lot of these concerns with the new model. I guess I’ll never know. Thanks, Hertz.

As much as I could sit here and type away for hours as to why the Panda is a terrible car, the truth of the matter is, in the end, none of that really mattered. Like the Punto, the Panda definitely has character but in a way it’s more than that. All its faults were so numerous and so blatant that its general awfulness started to become endearing. Eventually I went from being enraged that it took 12 hours to pass a slow moving vehicle on the autostrade, to cheering it on. “Go little Panda, go!” I shouted as I mashed my right foot to the ground and of course, nothing happened.  Then I would let out a little chuckle.

In the end the two Fiats, while far from being North American capable at this point, have one thing going for them which seems to allude a lot of manufacturers: Soul. Having now driven three of their models (the 500 is the third) I can safely say that there’s just something about Fiats that, despite having obvious reasons to hate them, makes it hard to do so.

I must say, I don’t have a whole lot of info on the vehicle above other than it’s probably the most adorable pick-up truck I’ve ever seen in my life. Aww!  A  quick google search reveals that this is called an Ape. A hilarious name I know, but it’s actually pronounced ‘ah-peh’ and is made by Piaggio. This three wheeled pick up was first produced in 1948 and is still in production today. After World War II, Italy was in bad shape and they desperately needed a cheap means of transport that could handle lots of hauling. That’s when Corradino D’Ascanio, owner of Vespa, had the idea to build a light three wheeled pick-up to help with Italy’s restauration. The Ape comes in either petrol or diesel form and while they are not everywhere in Italy, quite a few can be spotted about many smaller towns.

In Germany, the cars and the roads are pretty much what you’d expect. I’d say 85% of the vehicles on the roads are either Opels, Volkswagens, Audis, BMW’s and Benz’s. Hardly shocking. The rest are generally French cars with the odd Fiat and Ford sprinkled in as well. It’s always been on my bucket list (I hate that term, but it’s better than ‘things to do before I expire’ list) to drive on the autobahn and I always figured if I got the opportunity to do it, it would have to be in a German car. Just like driving a Ferrari on Italian streets gave me goosebumps, a car specifically designed to handle the autobahn with ease would likely have the same effect on me. So after checking with Hertz, I realized that I could reserve a BMW 1-series hatchback for a very reasonable price. I jumped on it. Being a big 1-series fan, I eagerly awaited when the day came to pick it up, which was easier said than done.

Not only did we have to wait about 30 minutes in line at the Hertz location at the Munich Airport, and after witnessing a Hertz agent blatantly allow someone to cut in front of the line, it took about another 10 minutes to realize that the 1-series I had reserved well ahead of time was not available. In fact, I was told that they did not have any 1-series’ at that location. What was the point of reserving one then? I was reminded of a Seinfeld episode where he and Elaine go to a rental place to pick up a car after having made a reservation and they are told that the car they had reserved was not there:

Seinfeld: But the reservation keeps the car here. That’s why you have reservations.
Agent: I know why we have reservations.
Seinfeld: I don’t think you do. If you did, I’d have the car.

Rather than attempting to reinact a scene from a sitcom in real life, I decided to give Hertz the benefit of the doubt thinking that they would give me something that is just as good or better than a 1-series to make up for it. Perhaps they’d get me an Audi A1 or even perhaps upgrade me to a 3-series. The Hertz agent came back to the desk with the keys to a Chevy Captiva. I looked back at her blankly.

“It’s an upgrade” she reassured me after my unimpressed look had her a bit nervous.

I have vaguely heard of the Captiva, but didn’t know a whole lot about it admittedly, other than it was an SUV. Driving an SUV on the autobahn is like being in Idaho and not having potatoes. I then asked what else was available and she went to check. She came back with the keys to a Ford Kuga, another SUV. Given that we were tired from the flight and tired of waiting  for what was getting close to an hour to pick up a rental car, I took the Ford and figured I would make my complaints with Hertz later. However, what really rubbed salt in the wound was walking through the sea of cars in the Hertz parking lot to get to the Kuga. I passed a white BMW 1-series that was clearly available. The agent had lied to me and told me one was not even at the location. There were also more adequate upgrades available as well. This made my blood boil to the point where I almost marched right back down to the main desk to give a piece of my mind. Again, fully aware of how much time it would take, I sucked it up went looking for the Kuga. Needless to say a strongly worded email is in the works along with researching other rental companies that might be more suited to earn my business.

So, the Kuga. It’s about Ford Escape sized and the model we had was the 2.0 diesel. I love diesels. Lots of low end torque matched with efficiency. It was a manual transmission to boot. After taking 10 minutes to figure out the somewhat complicated navigation system, we were on our way. The Kuga feels fairly solid and low end torque is very noticeable when in second gear. On the autobahn I got it up to about 170, but the RPM’s were a bit high at that point. In addition, outward visbility isn’t the best which is bad news when you have BMWs, Audis and Benz’s passing you at 200 km/h or faster. You need to be intensely aware of your surroundings at all times while driving on the autobahn. I have a habit of checking my rearview mirror about every three seconds or so in general, but a lot of the time I would check the rearview with nothing behind me then check again three seconds later only to see either a blue and white spindal, four rings or a three pointed star right on my tail. These German cars are so capable that people drive them intensely fast with little effort and it happens very quickly. In the end it was a fun time for me, but seeing all those German cars whisk by me had me a bit disappointed that I couldn’t partake in the fun like I had originally planned.

The trip was a lot of fun and while driving in Europe can certainly be a bit of a nerve racking experience I’m glad that I did it. If it wasn’t for the ability to get lost so easily and the spurts of really intense traffic jams, I’d probably do it again in a heartbeat. And in the end, I know I would do it again. But really, Italy and Germany, aside from making brilliant cars and having a great car culture, are among the most innovative and progressive countries all while retaining their charming and historical pedigree. If you get the chance to go to either country, do yourself a favour and do not pass on the opportunity.

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