I was recently in Italy for 12 days to attend a couple of events, including the Concours d’Elegance at Villa d’Este. I had been nervously looking forward to this trip for a while as my last time in Italy was only a short five day trip. Last time I was only a passenger seeing the sights through the back window of a rental Peugeot.
This time I’d have to drive across Northern Italy in a mixture of crowded city streets in Milan, narrow town roads surrounding Lake Como and Lake Maggiore, and the seemingly never ending stretches of motorway towards Modena and Bologna. Since it’d be my first time driving in Italy I wanted to get something familiar and with a navigation system I knew I could trust. Clearly there was only one manufacture I could go to: BMW.
BMW Italy very kindly lent me a brand new X3 xDrive20d M Sport for the entirety of my trip. With a 2.0-litre four-cylinder turbodiesel engine producing 140kW and 400NM, all-wheel drive, a brilliant and smooth 8-speed automatic, and a claimed fuel consumption of 5.7L/100km it turned out to be the perfect road trip vehicle. I covered 3000 kilometers exploring much of Northern Italy and only used 3 full tanks of diesel.
We’ve already got a full road test of the new G01-generation X3 in its hottest guise, the xDrive40i variant, but this 20d version is the one that’ll sell the best. It’s easy to understand why with the combination of fuel economy and adequate real world performance. Starting price for the 20d is $92,850 but this press car had literally every option box ticked which would’ve brought the price up well over six figures. Still, as I found out later on in my trip I’m glad this had every bell and whistle to make my life easier.
So here’s the 10 things I learnt from driving around Italy for 12 days:
Italians love speed and speed signs are merely ignorable suggestions. The speed limit on most motorways is 130 km/h but even if you go that speed you’ll still have people tailgating you. Oh and they absolutely will tailgate you until you get out of their way. They get right up to your bumper you can actually smell what kind of pasta they had for lunch earlier. Some will be kind enough to leave their left indicator on to let you know they want to pass through. There were times I was doing 130 km/h in the middle lane and people were passing me like I was stood still. There are speed cameras but as far as I’m aware they don’t take your average speed. So you just get people slowing down to 130 km/h before a speed camera comes up then speeding back up to 160+. The police don’t seem to care much either, more than once I saw cars pass police cars at speeds that’d get you sent to prison in any other country.
Road markings get ignored even more than speed signs, and that’s if there are any. On motorways it’s not uncommon to see cars cruising on the actual line. Not IN a lane, on the actual lane markings. That’s before you get to the towns and cities where there aren’t ANY road markings. It’s more a free for all. You just make up your own lane. There were times where I didn’t know if it was one, two, or three lane road until there were suddenly three cars abreast in front of me. Oh, and I’m glad the BMW iDrive has a great navigation system guiding you to the correct lane because I’d probably still be lost somewhere in Italy if I had relied on the road markings to guide me to which lane I should be on. It’s a completely unfathomable road system.
Italians don’t do it. You just have to sort of predict or guess which direction cars are going. It can become a fun game of “Are We Going To Crash or Not?” I must’ve been the only person on the road using my indicators, which was quite unusual since I was in a BMW. But there were times, especially on roundabouts, where we damn nearly crashed because no one uses their indicators.
Everyone drives like maniacs:
I guess I’ve covered this already with their disregard for speed limits, liberal views on lanes, and not using indicators but there are other things as well. In most civilised countries when you pull up to an intersection to look both ways, you come in slowly. In Italy, it’s more a mad rush and be quite startling as you’re not quite sure if he’s going to pull out in front of you or stop. There was one instance when we were behind a Golf GTI and an elderly man pulling out of a supermarket damn nearly rammed into the side of the Golf had it not been for some quick maneuvers resulting in only a curbed wheel. It could’ve been so much worse. Luckily, the X3 had a high driving position and hardly any blind spots meaning I got a better view to watch out for hazards. It helped the M-Sport pack comes with upgraded brakes too.
It sucks. That’s not even a joke, the road surface in Italy is officially the worse of any ‘developed’ country I’ve been to. It beats even Los Angeles for terrible roads. It was like being in a third world country. There were some good patches of road, especially up in the North but in Modena and Milan you would not want to be driving a low slung supercar there. Ironic given Ferrari, Lamborghini, Maserati, and Pagani all come from that general area. It was the bumpy road that made me happy I had an X3 and not a 5-Series wagon. The extra ground clearance just gave me that extra peace of mind. Despite the larger 20-inch alloys and M-Sport pack, the ride was never uncomfortable. It just soaked up the bumps nicely. Road surface was one thing but there was also the road sizes. It was mainly an old, small town problem around Lake Como. There were lots of one way roads that weaved in between centuries old houses. If I was in something like a BMW X5 or Lexus RX I’d probably have knocked over those buildings. The X3 was just about the perfect size to get through the gaps.
Maneuvering the X3 was thanks in part to it having the best parking aids on the market. I’m not exaggerating when I say this thing has THE best camera system of any new car today. Not only do you get 360 degree view, birds-eye view, and literally every other view you could ask for, the car will automatically stop itself if you get too close to an object. Which is useful as everyone in Italy seems to park like space is a precious commodity. It’s not uncommon to see cars parked LITERALLY in the middle of the road, on the sidewalk, or touching bumpers. When we stayed in central Milan all the street parked cars on the road our accommodation was on had something wrong with them. Some were keyed, some had dents, others had smashed lights. There wasn’t a single car that was in the condition it left the factory. Moral of the story: don’t buy a used car from Italy.
On the plus side, tolls on Italian motorways are cheap. Compared to the tolls in Japan I was having a field day at how cheap they were. Milan to Modena was only 12 euros! If you travelled that distance in Japan you’d be looking at at least four times the cost in tolls alone. On the downside, it did feel like there was a toll gate every 10 minutes which was a bit annoying. Okay, to be fair there was a Telepass which made going through tolls so much more convenient but for visitors it was a hassle putting coins or a card into the toll gate all the time. That’s only when it’d work. There were times either the person in the car in front didn’t know how to use the card machine or it wasn’t working that day like it was taking a siesta. Just Italian things.
One of the more enjoyable things about driving in Italy were all the foreign plates, usually from other EU states. Having only really spent time in isolated countries like Japan and New Zealand, I’m not used to seeing plates that weren’t native to the country I’m in. It ended up being a fun road trip game to see how many foreign plates we could spot and guessing where they were from.
The views in Modena and Bologna were a bit meh. Most of Milan were a bit dreary and disappointing, looking more like some communist state than the fashion capital of the world. The really lovely parts of Milan were just like in the movies but it’s only a very small portion of the city. However, up in Lakes area around Lake Como, Sirmione, and Maggiore was utterly jaw-dropping. It was the sort of post card photo from the jet set lifestyle of the 60s. All the stress from driving around Italy went away when I got to this part of the country. It was everything I fantasised about Italy when I was younger. This is where you need to go, skip Milan if you can.
Interesting cars around:
Of course being Italy there were a lot of interesting cars out on the road no matter where you were in the country. They weren’t always exotic supercars like Paganis and Lamborghinis but interesting nevertheless. From old Fiats and Lancias to obscure BMWs, there was always something to distract you from the mad Italian drivers. It’s hard to forget how car-obsessed Italians are. Their hectic driving style is a testament to this.
Overall, Italy was a great trip. The food, the scenery, the culture, the history, and of course the cars made it all worthwhile. The new X3 was pretty much the perfect car I could’ve asked for to explore Italy in. Anything bigger and I wouldn’t have fit in the tiny roads, anything lower and it would’ve probably snapped from the road surfaces, and anything more V8y and I would be bankrupt from the price of fuel. I totally get this whole SUV thing now.