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road sage

Andrew Clark and his brother drove three everyday economy cars through Italy, including this Fiat Panda Hybrid.Andrew Clark/The Globe and Mail

Ferrari. Lamborghini. Maserati. To most drivers, Italy epitomizes flashy sports cars. It is a country where the world’s best automobiles glide along the world’s most scenic roads. It is supercars dressed in brilliant colours, their powerful engines humming, set against amber fields, lush vineyards, rugged coastlines and sleepy hill towns.

That’s the fantasy – not the reality.

What’s it like driving a Maserati through the Italian countryside? Well, it’s great, what do you think it would be like? There’s no mystery.

What’s it like for an average driver to drive average cars in an exceptional country? To find out, I tested three of the most popular cars in Italy.

The first “utilitaria” (everyday economy vehicle) on the menu for my driving through Umbria and Tuscany was an Opel Corsa Crossland, a subcompact crossover SUV (which makes it a higher-end utilitaria). Launched in 2017, the Opel Crossland is a popular car in Europe (in June, total sales exceeded 500,000). Mine was white and had an automatic transmission.

I’d spent the week before seeing Umbria by bus. Our driver, Raffaele, was extremely skilled. He navigated narrow streets, winding turns and steep climbs. I studied his technique, not because I thought I could equal his mastery, but because I could learn something from his demeanour. The big takeaway? Stay frosty. Nothing on the road seemed to faze Raffaele. It was 40 degrees outside, but he was always cool and often having a cigarette. I gleaned two key factors to successful driving in Italy – stay cool and chain smoke.

Many North Americans are afraid to drive on Italian highways. It should be the other way round. Yes, Italian drivers are indeed aggressive but at least they know how to drive. North American drivers routinely clog the passing lane. In Italy, the left lane is for passing and passing only. Anything else is immoral.

Italy has a very efficient railway service, and, in the cities, public transportation is good. You can drive from Rome to Perugia or Florence but why bother? The train takes you right there. If you want to see remote regions, however, the car is the only way. The Crossland got us from our hotel near the ancient town of Amelia to our “albergo diffuso” Torre del Nera in the tiny hill town of Scheggino, to the small cities of Spoleto and Spello. We took a trip around Lake Trasimeno with a stop at the site of the 217 BCE Battle of Trasimene where Hannibal routed the Romans, stopped in Perugia and finished up at the southeastern Tuscan town of Cortona.

Except for Perugia, we never drove the Crossland into the centre of any cities or villages. Vehicles are banned in much of these areas and it’s much easier to park outside and walk or take public transit. The Crossland handled much as you would assume a subcompact crossover SUV would – capably and without alarm. It was convenient to drive automatic, given all the steep hills, but we kept feeling as if we’d forgotten something – like children. It’s a family car designed for people hauling a lot of stuff and humans.

I give the Opel Crossland five out of five “Crosslands.”

My next drive was a Fiat 500 with manual transmission rented by my brother. The Fiat 500 is the second best-selling car in Italy; 44,819 were sold in 2021. I had the chance to test-drive it to Arezzo. Aside from us trying to have it stolen, the Fiat 500 looked good and handled fine, but my brother spent a considerable amount of time lamenting its lack of acceleration. As a passenger, it was difficult to get the full measure of his complaint. The Fiat 500 did indeed seem sluggish, but it wasn’t until I had a chance to drive that I understood. It felt like driving a leaky canoe of wheels and the clutch was mushy.

Finally, I rented a Fiat Panda Hybrid with manual transmission and “Mild Hybrid Technology” that paired a 70-horsepower, one-litre engine with an electric motor. Dating back to the 1980s, the Fiat Panda is the ultimate “utilitaria” and built for European city driving, small spaces, zero frills and low stress. (Why they’re called “Pandas” is confusing because pandas are notoriously high maintenance animals.) It is the best-selling car in Italy, with 112,298 sold in 2021. The Panda Hybrid has been described by Stellantis as “the most democratic Mild Hybrid on the market.”

Democratic? Mild? If that doesn’t say “freedom” I don’t know what does.

Where the Fiat 500 was mushy, the Panda was sticky. It was the kind of manual transmission I grew up on. The clutch was pleasingly finicky. The vehicle was compact and dependable yet capable of bursts of speed and aggression (much like the red pandas of the Himalayas and southwestern China). I left Cortona at 5 a.m. for my flight out of Rome and the Panda did not disappoint. After winding through some rural roads, we were on the A1 autostrada. Sweet Italian highway driving. Cars sped by in the left lane, and I chugged along in the right.

Which of the “le utilitarie” was the best? The Fiat Panda Hybrid hands down. Of course, there were other everyday vehicles I could have driven – the Toyota Yaris and the Lancia Ypsilon – but there were only so many hours in a day and miles on the road. The Fiat Panda Hybrid is not exactly a Maserati MC20 Cielo blazing down the autostrada, but it will get you to the airport on time.

Utilitaria. Che bella.

The writer was a guest of Umbria Tourism. Content was not subject to approval.

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