I try to drive in Italy at least once a year. Being born and raised in Florida leaves a pretty big hole where it comes to driving satisfaction – straight roads, low speed limits and heavy traffic all add up to about as bad as it gets for someone like me. In Italy it’s pretty easy to stay amused with the mechanical offerings and the selections of how to use them. Fast trains and cruising the Autostrada in the left lane regardless of on two or four wheels makes me happy. But this winter trip I decided to try something totally different, at the opposite end of the mechanical spectrum – I rented an electric microcar in Florence.
Florence it was explained to me, is a city that welcomes this type of transportation with genuinely open arms. For the most part, these tiny cars can go most anywhere, park most anywhere and utilize the chargers, for free, scattered around the city center. I rented an apartment right on the Piazza Signoria, as restricted an area as Italy has to offer, rented the car and decided to see for myself how it would all work.
The microcar, a Biro built in Italy by a company called Estrima is really little more than a fully electric enclosed golfcar with clear plastic suicide doors. It seats two tightly but because it’s so small it can park in scooter spaces. It was delivered to the Piazza Signoria by it’s owner and after a coffee and a nice chat he showed me how and where to charge it. Our first choice of chargers was in use by the Mayor but there was another one across the piazza (and closer to my door) so that was home base for the next couple days.
Sure enough it really could go anywhere, although to be truthful, that was easier said than done. Florence’s city center is a maze of one way streets and GPS doesn’t work well there in the small alleys that pass for roads and the old buildings that surround them. Getting from one side of the city center to the other could be really complicated and more than once we found ourselves having to double back and try again. One day when I was parking it an Italian man stopped me and asked about it but when he discovered I was driving without a GPS his wife gave him a face that said it all and his interest disappeared in short order. I later learned the company that rents them also rents GPS devices they said work in the city, something my iPhone was struggling with.
What was great was the amount of distance you could cover in a day, which would have been impossible on foot. Our first day with the car we started out to the Piazza Michelangelo, drove all around that area (across the river from the main Duomo church) stopping to visit a couple of church’s including San Miniato al Monte, and the Pitti Palace (parking each place with little drama because it’s so small and easy to park) then made our way to the Central Market for lunch, did some shopping and then headed back across the river for a change of clothes and dinner. It goes about 50km on a charge and even with all that driving we ended our day with a half charge remaining.
Plugging it in and charging it would have been a breeze if I had known a tiny bit more about it. The cord is in a locked panel in the lower rear and plugs in to a small receptacle in the back of the car which then goes to the charging station. Once it’s plugged in you go back to the car and flip a switch and make sure the panel lights up. Ours didn’t, because the station plug we were using (each station has several receptacles) fuse was tripped, which we didn’t realize until the next day, but if we had known it, the fix was as simple as resetting the fuse by flipping the lever. Fortunately as it turns out the Biro had enough power for two days and we made it back to the charging station with ease.
About the car itself: It’s super easy to drive and park, and operates much like a golf cart but without that big surge golf carts have when you first hit the gas. The brakes aren’t bad but the whole package is pretty skittish overall, which I’m sure is enhanced by the rough roads and cobblestones that make up the city center. It’s got a roof vent which works ok for getting a breeze but my guess is in summer it would be pretty hot to drive if you were out of the shade of the buildings in the sun. Operating it really is just as simple as flipping a lever for forward and reverse and pushing the gas or brake. It could use some hidden storage and it does have a small compartment but it’s hard to get to and really designed for tools more than shopping bags or cameras stored out of sight. In short, it’s easy to operate, fun to drive and cute as a button. Truthfully, we loved riding around in it even though we became somewhat of a little tourist attraction ourselves, we were asked several times to stop for photos with people we were passing in the streets.
The overall experience: Florence is a really busy tourist destination, full up to it’s ears with people wall to wall and driving thru them isn’t so easy. In fact it’s hard and you have to really be careful not to whack somebody with a mirror or strike a baby carriage or the tourist pushing it. The Biro is allowed to drive along the edges of the squares, which even taxis can’t do. So that’s great. And the experience of “filling up for free” in Italy is just plain lovely and a bit bizarre given the cost of gas and diesel not to mention the complicated fill up process that passes for normal there. I think these loopholes will certainly go away once more people have electric cars, the absolute freedom of it all is unsustainable once a number of users embrace it.
How to rent one: In Florence we used FlorenceEcoRent (who I can recommend highly), but companies like this are starting to pop up all around Italy and often also seem to also rent scooters and bicycles. Delivery is available (ours was delivered and picked up from the Piazza Signoria for an extra 15e and the rental prices vary – our total package was 125e for two days.
Would I do it again? Yes, absolutely. Seeing this much of a city I love without the sore feet that usually goes with that is pretty great. Is it for everybody? No. Driving in Florence (and any inner city in Italy) is difficult. In fact, I would describe driving there somewhat of an adventure.
Sounds good but not so sure about the driving? There is another wonderful option for those who prefer to see but not drive offered here 2 or three hour tours in a chauffeured open air Ape Calessino by TukTuk Florence, which is I must confess my very favorite (and romantic) of all the small crazy vehicles offered in Italy