Car Talk August 12, 2006


August 12, 2006 I finally came to terms with needing to buy a car. After all, five years is a long time for an American male type to be without a car. The final straw was the August in Italy phenomenon. As I have mentioned in previous postings, August is a month that barely exists on the Italian calendar. July ends and the Italians run lemming-like to the beach or to the mountains. Even those who stay at home use August as an excuse to get out of doing whatever doesn’t absolutely need to be done.

I was doing fine this August until I noticed that my Permesso di Soggiorno (permit to live in Italy) expired on August 30. To renew it, I needed to get to Macerata, about 30 kms away. I looked at the bus schedules and realized it would involve almost six hours, most of this time waiting for the return bus. If this would have only involved one trip I would have gone ahead and used the bus, but I have learned from past experience that it takes at least two, if not three trips to get everything right.

So I called Lorella at Sixt Autonoleggio from whom I have rented cars many times before. She informed me that she was going on vacation on Monday and that the office would be closed for two weeks. I could call her colleague in Civitinova, but I would have to get there in order to rent the car. No thanks since Civitinova is much further away and I am clueless about the bus service. I then called Avis, the only other major rental car company in the area, and found that their office in Macerata is closed for the entire month. I then checked with the car dealership here in Sarnano that occasionally rents out cars. It turns out that it is a car, as in singular, and this car had been spoken for long ago.


Finally, the dawning hit–maybe it was time to just give up and buy a car. Yes, all of the basics are within walking distance and I’ve solved how to use public transportation, but there is so much to see around here, and it does require a car. I have all but finished the apartment projects so I could almost afford one now.

The car that I may have bought–nothing is ever that simple in Italy–is a Citroen C3. I chose it over the many other available 5-door hatchback Eurocars for the simple reason that I can see the dealership from my balcony. I had rented this particular model before and liked it. After initial misgivings (how the hell can I fit into this roller skate??) I found that it was commodious enough for four people and fun to drive. The car is small enough to fit into most parking places but large enough that I can pick up friends or family at the airport and still have room for luggage. Also, in spite of having a teensy diesel engine, it will scoot down the autostrada at well over 130 (80 mph). It now sits at the dealership until after August 21. This being August in Italy, the license plate office is closed until then so I will only have visitation rights until the office reopens.

My car choice puts to rest an outdated EU (European Union) joke:
“EU Heaven is where the French are the cooks, the Germans the mechanics, the Brits are the police, the Italians are the lovers, and it is all organized by the Swiss.
EU Hell is where the French are the mechanics, the Germans are the police, the Brits are the cooks, the Swiss are the lovers, and it is all organized by the Italians.”
(Naturally, when the Greeks or the French tell the joke, they substitute themselves for the Italians.)

The French are making damn good cars these days, not that you will find very many available in the states, particularly Texas. I’ve really enjoyed renting Peugeots and Citroens. The only American car that I have found available for rent over here has been the Ford Focus. Most American cars are just too big for European roads. Also, Europeans need to be a little more aware of gas mileage. The equivalent of a gallon of diesel costs €4.62 (1 liter costs €1.22 and it takes 3.7854118 liters to make a gallon). Tap in the exchange rate and you are almost up to $6.00 a gallon. And gas costs 22 cents more than diesel. Ouch.

Buying a car here (assuming success in this project) was certainly a different experience than the previous five new cars that I bought in the states over the years. There was zero pressure and the negotiations were rather simple. Essentially I was told that here is the list price, here is the (substantial) discount, and here is the final price. Take it or leave it. I was dealing with the owner, so there was no “let me see what I can get out of my manager.” And as near as I can tell, there aren’t the annoying add-ons such as dealer preparation, taxes, title, and license. Apparently they are all included in the price. When (and if) I actually drive my new toy home in ten days, we will see if there are any surprises. But on the contract, it clearly states: PREZZO DI LISTINO TOTALE CHIAVI IN MANO. I don’t think you need to take Italian lessons to figure out that this essentially means “total price, keys in hand.”

I read with some interest that the Smart Car people are going to take a crack at the North American market in 2008. It will be interesting to see if they are successful. I can’t see this particular vehicle in Texas, where entire cities are designed for large cars. (A Suburban could back over one and not even realize it hit anything.) But it might prove popular on the coasts. The Smart Car is certainly an attention grabber–one sees them parked semi-legally everywhere in Rome, often nose to curb between two cars which are parallel parked. But they are quite expensive and are not competing all that well with other Eurocars, including the Citroen C2 and the Peugeot 206. They cost about €4000 more than the Citroen C3 that I chose.

Meanwhile GM and other American auto manufacturers continue to crank out large vehicles. I even read yesterday that GM was going to bring back some 1970-80 vintage “muscle cars” that they had discontinued, in hopes that their popularity might lead to profitability. And every time that I get back to Texas, somehow it is always “Texas Truck Month” with Ford and Dodge promoting their macho gas-guzzlers. I’m curious as to how much longer can this continue in the face of gas prices approaching $4.00 a gallon. At $6.00 a gallon, the European rate, you know that Americans would finally start shopping for smaller cars. Maybe. (back)