There is a bridge over the railway tracks in my town that has recently been resurfaced. And it stands out dramatically, because the moment your tyres touch it, everything becomes as quiet as a whisper. It stands out even more because such properly surfaced roads are so incongruous with the general state of Britain’s roads, increasingly deserving of notoriety.
Should you want a ‘grass is greener’ experience with respect to the quality of our roads, however, go for a drive in Italy’s Lazio region (even if the region itself is lovely).
We spent a few days in northern Italy last year, near the city of Trento. It was wonderful in all sorts of ways – beautiful scenery, good food, and wonderful, well-maintained Alpine roads (not quite up the standard of Austria’s roads, which we passed down through on our way to Italy, but close). Because of this, it was a bit of a surprise to arrive in Rome the other week, pick up a hire car, begin driving north to our destination near Viterbo, and discover that the roads were shockingly bad. The number of and size of the potholes littered across the surfaces of even the major arteries was almost beyond belief. Roads were falling away at the edges. Markings had all but disappeared, and the signage, particularly the ones related to speed, were so sparse that it was often impossible to determine what the limit actually was (probably because they had all been removed and placed on this one little stretch of road in the town I was staying in you see below).
For this reason, I was glad to arrive at the hire car desk and be handed the keys to a Ford Fiesta. You need a car that is properly screwed together if your teeth and spine are going to survive such a trip.
This was my first drive in a new Fiesta, and with the reputation the car has earned in the motoring press, my expectations were high. In typical hire-car spec, the Fiesta had just a light smattering of options, and was powered – sort of – by the naturally-aspirated 1.1L three-cylinder engine, joining the exclusive club of cars I’ve driven in my life with two-figure power ratings. And it needed to be worked very hard to make any forward movement, particularly in this more mountainous region of Italy. With no power available below 3000rpm, I had to regularly keep the car in lower gears to maintain momentum, which often meant cruising along in third or fourth on anything but a motorway. The only benefit to this particular powertrain was the growl of the three-pot, which could either be interpreted as the sound of determination, or of frustration at constantly being run closer to the redline than to idle. Still, despite the fact that my foot was to the floor a good deal of the time, the car returned 45mpg.
Engine aside, the Fiesta handled Italy’s roads as well as it could. It is, on the whole, a quiet, comfortable, and composed car, and I have no trouble understanding why so many people buy them. For our younger family of four, with our luggage, it was snug, but not cramped. I found the seats supportive and the driving position decent, if a bit high for someone of my height. The controls were nicely laid out and within easy reach, although I could have done without the giant screen stuck to the dash. Visibility was a bit lacking out of the rear, and I found the A-pillar to be an obstruction through corners, requiring me to lean forward to see through the bends. Those, however, are minor complaints about an otherwise competent car.
On our last night there, I took the car out on my own for a more spirited drive (something I can’t do with a wife who sometimes gets travel sick), and found that even this base model Fiesta livens up when you want to have some fun. Chuck it into a corner, and it firms up well, staying fairly balanced and allowing you to carry quite a bit more speed through a bend than I would have expected. I really needed to keep the engine screaming to prevent it from falling flat on exit, but I came away thinking that, even just one step up to the smallest EcoBoost engine would transform this thing into quite a riot on these empty and tightly wound Italian roads (so long as you keep an eye out for the potholes, of course). It is simply proof again that, with a proper chassis, you don’t need tons of power to have a good time.
Driving in this part of Italy was rather more interesting than I had expected, and after returning home, I saw this tweet, which I think sums it all up very well:
I am currently driving on holiday in Italy. I work in IT and have worked in various technical disciplines over 20 years. I’d love to see the algorithm and array of sensors that equips a car to drive autonomously here 😂😂😂.
— Art C (@mk1cooper) August 1, 2019