Posted: Jun 04, 2010 | By: Craig Howie & William Jeanes
As international travel has boomed in the past generation, Americans have increasingly found themselves slipping behind the wheel of strange vehicles in foreign lands. For many drivers, this first taste of “motoring” is like a breath of fresh air. Europeans have a different attitude about their cars and roads, and the average European driver has typically been much more of an enthusiast than here in the U.S. But the appeal of unrestricted speed on Germany’s autobahn can be quickly tempered by an Italian traffic jam. And forget about finding a Taco Bell drive-thru in Belgium, let alone one open at 3 a.m. The nearest might as well be in Peoria. Then there’s the price of fuel... but we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
There are clearly pros and cons of driving here or there, but its such an interesting argument that we’re going to treat it in a unique way. Playing the Ugly American will be William Jeanes, AOL Editor-at-Large and the former chief of Car and Driver magazine. Arguing for the superiority of driving in the European Union is AOL Autos Correspondent Craig Howie, a Brit who now lives in the Los Angeles area. Gentlemen, start your engines. --Ed.
America: This Land Is Made For You And Me
Men and women of good will can have intelligent disagreements about the pleasures of driving in Europe versus those of stateside motoring. The European contingent is, of course, entitled to their silly opinions, but I will offer a few reasons why they are dead wrong and, just to prove I’m not one of those nuts who refrains from eating french fries out of geopolitical considerations, one instance where they may actually have a point.
Let’s begin by excluding the United Kingdom from our discussion. The U.K.’s auto industry is so monumentally misguided that it installs steering wheels on the right-hand side of the dash, making driving there seem as if its being done using a mirror. Our steering mechanisms, on the other hand (no pun intended), are on the left where God and Democrats rightly believe they belong. Driving here in the U.S., with the exceptions of Boston and some areas of the Deep South, is therefore not an unnatural act.
That leaves continental Europe, beginning with Portugal on the western boundary and ending somewhere short of Russia’s Ural Mountains on the east. I have driven in about eighteen European countries, if you count San Marino and Andorra, and there are fine roads in those places to be sure. But between the Portugal/Russia bookends also lurk law enforcement policies that redefine the term draconian. Driving fast is a costly enthusiasm, and should you fail a Breathalyzer test you are sent to Pleasure Island and turned into a donkey.
You think I’m exaggerating about the cost of speeding in Europe? Try these two stories, which are assuredly not urban legends.
A Nokia executive in Finland, one of the toughest driving venues, earned a fine equal to $145,000 for going 25 kilometers above the speed limit on a Harley-Davidson. If you did that in Texas, some highway patrolman would ask you what’s wrong with your bike.
In Switzerland, for driving his Ferrari through a village at 137 kph (85 mph), a millionaire recently paid a fine of about $290,000. He could afford it, but my stars, isn’t that just a tick or two above excessive on the whackometer? The fine, in fact, was twice the size of that paid in 2008 by the previous record holder, a Zurich Porsche driver.
If you haven’t yet got the point, the worrying that goes with driving in Europe more than offsets the pleasures of generally well-maintained roads and gorgeous scenery. I mean, who wants to go flying around those great hairpin turns in the Alps knowing that a few clicks above the limit might cost you your house?
Those are extreme examples, but not all that extreme. Speeding on an Autoroute in France can cost you as much as 1,500 Euros if you exceed the limit by 40 kph or more. A third offense in France can cost you 3,600 Euros (about $4,500) and you will be acid-dipped and have your bones dragged through one of Paris’s lesser neighborhoods. Fines are also expensive (around 1,500 Euros) in Italy, home of Ferrari, Lamborghini, and Maserati, and the spiritual mecca for would-be Juan Fangios. In the U.S. only four states have maximum fines as high as $1000.
The limit on most European motorways ranges from 120 kph to 130 kph, and there’s no speed limit in parts of Germany. Even in Germany, however, you can pay fines amounting to hundreds of Euros if an officer thinks you’re driving too fast for conditions. This means that, in order to relax, you have to keep it under 80 mph on the motorways. On our Interstate system, much of which is not undergoing traffic-clogging repairs as I write this, you can drive 80 and remain reasonably carefree. Especially if you are armed with a radar detector, which are illegal only in Virginia and the District of Columbia. Before using your radar detector in California and Minnesota, note that crafty lawmakers in those states have decreed that nothing may be hung from your windshield with suction cups. You can hold it between your teeth and pretend you’re a Navy Seal.
But enough. The point is made. From the evidence, we can conclude that not one soul in Europe wants you to enjoy driving their roads. Here, in the world of purple mountain majesty and fruited plains, things are better. Fines are lower, and the country is so spacious that, once off the Interstates -- which is where you need to be to begin with -- you won’t encounter too many lawmen except in cities and towns.
I remember during my time at Car and Driver, our annual Ten Best issue frequently contained the Ten Best Roads. We never ran out of them, and readers always added many more roads after the article ran. There is an apparently endless storehouse of twisty roads that you can enjoy without facing financial ruin. Unless you bend your car around a tree.
And the roads are everywhere. From US 2 running north out of Burlington, Vermont, to Arkansas Route 7, to the Pacific Coast Highway in California (which, unless you rise early, will almost always be swarming with sluggish drivers). There are places, Nevada for one, the Death Valley area for another, where you can drive for ages without being interrupted by much of anything.
In my home state of Mississippi, there is the curvy and isolated Route 587, running between the twin metropolises of Monticello and Foxworth in south Mississippi, and the glorious Natchez Trace, with its 50-mph speed limit. I have driven an hour out of my way to drive 587, and I relish every chance to drive the Trace. You would think that the 50-mph restriction would ruin it, but it doesn’t. The reward is peace and tranquility, however, not speed grins.
Moreover, there are such oddities as the bits and pieces of Route 66; there’s just nothing to be found in Europe that can charm you like those throwbacks.
But is the U.S. the perfect driving environment? No. What it lacks are large numbers of good -- and even great -- restaurants like those to be found in France and Italy. For reasons given above, I suppose the safe thing to do would be to hire a non-drinking chauffeur who was afraid of speed and have yourself driven from one great continental table to the next.
But that would be wrong. You would no longer be a driver. And that cinches my vote for the United States, potholes and all.
Europe: Just Better In Every Way
The experience of driving in Europe is more enjoyable from top to bottom, left to right. The list of reasons is a long one, but it starts with better driving roads. Most Europeans don't have to drive halfway across the world to get to outstanding places to drive. In Europe the roads are narrower, more winding and have more bumps, hillocks and dips. Europe is made for drivers who love coastal, mountainous and rural roads. What’s that you say, how does this beat a straight, flat, wide Interstate? Well, it’s just a downright pleasant experience to get the best out of a car's handling, ride and road holding, rather than driving for mile upon mile of straight road, seemingly never getting anywhere. Wind-in-the-hair motoring along idyllic coastal or rural byways? Britain didn't produce MGs, Triumphs and Austin Healeys for nothing.
Which brings us to Europe’s better, smaller cars. A little footprint is key, as good visibility and a tight turning radius are helpful in navigating our superior roads. And because of our roads, our cars have developed to take corners well rather than blast off in a straight line. This has resulted in some of the best handling cars on the road in almost every category and at every price, from VW GTI’s and British two-seaters through BMW 5-Series all the way up to Lambos, our cars handle like they're on rails.
But that’s not the only reason our cars are smaller. From London to Paris to Rome, tight street-side parking is a hallmark of European capitals. French and Italian marques like Renault, Citroen and Fiat -- cars Americans are unaccustomed to seeing stateside -- typify this approach. These cars are also more maneuverable when driving around our cities with their many traffic circles. (Remember Clark Griswold's European Vacation experience?) If you've ever driven around the back streets of Naples, clipping wing mirrors and swerving around Vespas, you'll know why smaller cars are better.
The final thing about smaller cars that works in Europe’s favor is that we’ve got a much more fuel-efficient fleet. In days gone by, Europe had much stricter emissions standards than the U.S. (Though that has changed and now the U.S. has the most stringent emissions standards in the world.) Fuel tax rates are also much higher in Europe, as anyone who's driven there knows. Squeeze that pump handle and the numbers rocket up like the space shuttle's altimeter. So European car companies traditionally relied on smaller, more efficient engines, primarily four-cylinders in place of sixes, and sixes rather than V8’s. And while diesel became a dirty word here, European luxury carmakers saw it as the answer. New diesel engines from BMW, Audi and Mercedes are quiet, have an outstanding power-to-emissions ratio, and pack amazing torque at the lower end. And all without sucking down the gas like we’ll never run out.
Then there’s the Autobahn. If you haven’t driven it, picture eight freeway lanes of cars zooming along unfettered by any speed limit. Then imagine blurry lines of BMWs, Mercedes and Porsches pushing their top speeds to the limit and you're pretty close to the experience. Autobahn driving is foot-to-the-floor motoring at its legal best. You've got to be pretty careful though, as it's easy to get stuck behind a slower-moving truck and then not have the acceleration to pull out into the extremely fast-moving outer lane.
In preparation for use on these high-speed roads, Stuttgart and Bayern's finest are put through their paces on Germany's famous Nurburgring racetrack, which is open to the public merely for payment of a small fee. But Germany isn’t the only European country with a penchant for going fast. Many Italian drivers treat their country’s speed limits with the same disregard they have for other traffic laws, meaning travel on Italy’s Autostrada can be just as exhilarating.
While we're not encouraging anyone to break the law, drivers in Europe -- where speed cameras often supplant troopers for highway enforcement, especially in the U.K. -- are much less likely to be ticketed for "moving violations" like reckless lane changes, cell-phone use behind the wheel or driving with a broken tail-light. Speed cameras for the most part are only effective in catching speeding drivers. Drivers should, however, watch out for much higher fines for speeding in certain European countries if they're unlucky enough to be spotted by a roadside Carabinieri. (Not to mention being marched to an ATM to pay the fine on the spot -- some Italian police cars actually contain cash machines solely for this purpose.)
As we’ve brought up the issue of lawbreaking, it’s certainly in Europe’s favor that its rates of drunken driving are lower than in the U.S. Bars, restaurants and nightclubs in Europe are traditionally clustered around city centers, so there is little need for drivers to consider driving home after a sniff of the barmaid's apron. European public transport systems are also some of the world's best, meaning your designated driver is most likely taking you home on a city bus.
My final argument for the unquestionable superiority of the European driving experience is a bit silly, but it serves nicely as a summary of the European attitude: We drive on both sides of the road. Indeed, a quick hop from the European mainland over (or under) the Channel to Britain, and tooling about suddenly takes on a new dimension. We drive on the left side of the road in the U.K., so changing gears with your left hand -- because, remember, there is a great likelihood you’ll find yourself in a car with a manual transmission over there -- and having to think “backwards” is in itself a fun experience. (Be thankful that the accelerator, brake and clutch are not reversed.) If driving on the left intimidates you as an American, that’s okay. Europe is more demanding of its drivers, but also more rewarding.