A Road Trip: Panda Conquers Italy (Part One)

By James Wong

06.01.2009

It all happened in a whirlwind. Sitting on the plane en route from Milan to Singapore, reminiscing about my trip, I can scarcely believe I had covered slightly more than 1,000km in ten days through Italy’s greatest cities, and, without a doubt, its most spectacular roads. I did this in nothing more than an inconspicuous Fiat Panda 1.3 Multijet. How I managed to garner enough courage to navigate a manual budget diesel hatchback in a left-hand drive foreign country (my home country is right-hand drive) remains a mystery to me even up till today. But it is my pleasure to recount and share with Autosavant readers about my experience, and let’s start with the first day in the ancient city of Rome, where we first picked up the car…

It was 5pm and we were still in the midst of Vatican City, just about finishing up with the tour of St. Peter’s Basilica, the Sistine Chapel and the Vatican City grounds. Our pick-up time set for the car from the rental company at Rome’s main railway station was at 5:30pm. Something told me we weren’t going to make it.

vatican-tour

Vatican Tour

After finishing up the tour, careful not to miss out on any detail of what is possibly one of the most awesome historical sites in the civilized world, we made hurried pace to the railway station. Rome is one city you cannot navigate in without maps or at least a good memory from previous experience. Tracing our steps back to the railway, a part of me felt as if I was a character in one of Dan Brown’s Angels & Demons, racing against time to reach a destination that seemed so distant and inaccessible. Small cobbled streets are adjacent to main multi-lane thoroughfares; roads twist and turn to places unimaginable; one is given the impression of orchestrated chaos as cars weave in and out of traffic. The clock continued to tick as we boarded the train toward Rome Termini Station, where all the car rental companies are located. Our hearts raced when we finally reached the station, 10 minutes late. Running like there’s no tomorrow, we prayed that they would still be open, as ours was the last pick-up slot. Passing neighbouring rental companies, all of the usually bright signboards were unlit. Things were not looking good when, finally reaching Auto Europe’s desk, we spotted a man holding a briefcase and wearing a trench coat just about to lock up the office. We heaved a sigh of relief as the man agreed to release us the car, albeit not without some combination of resentment and derision as he was probably on his way home. Well, talk about an adventure.

Taking the keys to the Panda, I felt a rush of excitement as this would be the first time I’ll be ever driving a Fiat, let alone a left-hand drive model. The car was parallel-parked in between two lorries with little gap to spare, not exactly a happy sight for a driver who just now got into Italy and now had an unfamiliar and left-hand drive rented car in his hands. I entered, felt the clutch and was just amazed at how light it was. The gearbox was notchy, feeling unfamiliar in my right hand. Visibility on all accounts, however, was excellent. The car had huge windows and big mirrors which made it a cinch to drive. Now the challenge, however, was to get the car out into the open road.

After what seemed like a dozen 3-point turns, I was on the main road. Friends helped to do the navigating as I familiarised myself with the car. One thing I noticed straightaway is how easy the car is to drive. You sometimes forget you are driving a manual because the clutch is lenient and the throttle lazy, so you will rarely get a time when your car will die because there is a huge safety margin. The drawback of this, however, is that finding the biting point (tip-in point or uptake to you Americans) of the car clutch is a bit difficult. At the end of the trip, I still found the biting point vague. The steering also felt extremely light and lost when you try to make it communicate with the road. If I were to sum up my first impressions, the Panda simply felt numb to drive. A cinch to pot around town, but it is a complete opposite to a sharp machine, for the lack of a better explanation.

At first, I was pretty sure it was a diesel, as torque for the 1.3 was quite respectable. But after we made our first stopover at one of the Autostrada’s Autogrill, I wasn’t so sure already. Leaving the engine to idle, I got out of the car and started listening to the engine. My rather trained ears couldn’t decide if the engine sounded like a petrol or a diesel. I went to the exhaust and told me friend to give it some gas. No good. It sounds just like a petrol, but my mind tells me it’s a diesel. It was such a dilemma in fact, that, on the next day when we had to refill, we needed to check the manual to confirm that it is a diesel. This, if nothing else, shows how much diesel has progressed from the days of smoky fumes and clattering noises. This is one fine example of a modern diesel and I couldn’t be happier. (Author’s note: my experience with diesel cars is very limited as the diesel road tax in Singapore is 2.5 times that of petrol; hence, very few diesel cars are introduced locally as they are unpopular).

My dad warned me about driving at night in Italy and cautioned me never to do it as it is considered a bit dangerous. On the first day however, my first ever experience behind the wheel of the Panda, I had to drive in pitch black darkness. The Autostrada is an amazing, well-maintained stretch of several highways (akin to Germany’s Autobahn) that link most of the major cities in Italy. Our stop for the night was at least 2 hours away and the fastest way was by Autostrada. Against my father’s wishes, I undertook the drive.

italy-road-sign

Surely a joy for any car enthusiast

Surprisingly, fear barely crept into me as I clocked the miles. Apart from stalling the car once on a highway ramp, and coming narrowly close to a truck on the road shoulder (sense of perspective still nascent), the drive was actually quite enjoyable. I savoured every bit of the engine’s torque as it cruised effortlessly down the Autostrada. Averaging speeds of between 130km/h to 170km/h, the car revved cleanly to its redline, settling to a comfortable cruise even at its top speed. The stability of the car and the smoothness of the engine impressed me deeply as I had early notions that the car would have not been happy with the high speeds.

Finding the farmhouse located in one of the most rural regions of Tuscany was no mean feat. Exiting from the Autostrada, we navigated through twisting roads that I would have appreciated in the day, but not in the darkness. We took almost an hour just to wind our way deep into the country, finally reaching a town called Greve in Chianti. We were on the right track. Now just up a daunting one-way uphill slope and we should be there… but, no. The gates were locked. Frantically, we called for the owner, rattled the gates and sounded the horn. But it was a ghost town. All around us, it was darkness as a wolf howled in the distance. Only stars provided light. By then, it was also freezing outside so we relied on the Panda’s heater to keep warm. We already had thoughts that we would have to spend the night in the car if we didn’t manage to get the owner to wake up.

curve-italy

One of the many amazing roads in Tuscany

However, by some miracle, a guy walked out of the gates and prattled in some Italian before leading us to our apartment. Yet another close shave in one adventurous day. I had enough – I was looking forward to a good night’s rest and I wasn’t disappointed. The farmhouse was simply amazing and what we saw in the morning was even more spectacular…

panda-farmhouse

Our farmhouse and our faithful Panda in Tuscany

– End of Part One-

COPYRIGHT Autosavant – All Rights Reserved

Author: James Wong

The only writer to be based in Asia, James provides a refreshingly different perspective to the automotive industry with his unique experience of living in the Far East. He is a prolific journalist who has written for several leading automotive publications in Singapore, including Torque Singapore and REV Magazine Singapore. He believes in the thrill of driving and champions for an appreciation of driving pleasure above the horsepower race. In September 2010, James relocated to the United Kingdom, London, bringing him to a whole new environment from which to start a new chapter in automotive journalism.

Share This Post On

11 Comments

  1. I went from LHD to RHD when I went to Auckland from Seattle. It’s very disorienting.

    Especially when you’re trying to drive your rental car home from the pub the first night there. Add in jet lag and you can see how difficult it gets.

  2. Wow, this sounds like a great trip. I drove through France 20 years ago, and it was a great trip, except for the fact that I drove a base model Renault.

  3. GM bankruptcy will be done in 90 days, that’s my prediction. With all of the federal govt behind them, how they can they not get what they want?

  4. Sounds like a great trip so far, and I’m intereted in Part 2. I was in Italy for two months in 2004 and have been wanting to go back since then.

  5. More proof that a small car is mor than adequate for most people’s needs, inluding travel.

  6. Yeah, everybody talks about France or Spain but Italy is a better drive.

    I’ve driven through Europe – Italy is definitely one of the best drives with moutains, views of the sea, lovely villages, etc.

  7. Thank you lads. Part Two will be done by this weekend!

  8. Roger: Read your articles, most insightful. I like the comment about Agip petrol! And I didn’t know the Autostrada I was travelling on was called the Highway of the Sun either.

  9. It brings back memories how I drove for 12 hours through the Rockies in Vancouver 20 years ago. I believe the highway is as good as those in North America.

  10. Must have been a spellbinding trip sir.

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published.