But Wait! There’s More!: Adventures in Buying an Electric Car in Italy

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We have owned a plain, black Kia Picanto for three years. Paid 2000 euros cash for it. A basic car, it sports a radio, CD player, and AC, but it has no cruise control. It’s been a good car. It was ten years old when we bought it and it has been a dependable little workhorse. The fold-down rear seats and hatchback have allowed us to transport everything from groceries to IKEA furniture packs to lumber. The body is in excellent shape. Indeed, it still looks almost new; no scratches or dents anywhere.  So, it quite pains me to think of soon dropping it off to be crushed into a cube by a giant compactor.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

We recently decided to purchase an electric car. Neither of us has had one before and have not even driven a hybrid. I’ve owned maybe a dozen cars in my life – all standard internal combustion cars. I used to mentally calculate the miles per gallon consumed at each filling. I was never “in love” with any of them but the freedom of independent mobility was seductive enough to keep me doing trade-ins and upgrades every few years.

When electric cars began to appear in the U.S. I was only mildly intrigued. You can maybe use it in the city neighborhoods but forget about road trips. I never seriously considered one. Even despite knowing the facts about oil supply depletion, drilling in sensitive settings, and air pollution. To many Americans, having a car seems to be a birthright. It’s a bit of cognitive dissonance at work.

But, now that we live in Italy, a new world has opened up in the Old World. We looked at more than a dozen truly amazing electric cars; I had no idea the designs had progressed so far beyond the initial Spartan versions. Some are still pretty plain, but oh my, some resemble Italian racing cars. It finally dawned on some car designer that style sells. I was impressed.

After some viewings and test drives, we narrowed the selection to a Renault Zoe. A sleekly sculpted and brightly colored deep red body with a roomy interior marked by a flat computer screen on the dashboard. It runs more than 300 km between charges – a sizable road trip. The high tech / high style design matches the treats that go with it. By treats, I am referring to the financial incentives.

Incentives. This is what got us moving in this direction. The number and types are almost hard to believe.

First, there is the one-time grant from the Italian government – 10,000 euros are automatically deducted from the purchase price. The “catch” is you must destroy your current petroleum-fueled vehicle. Hence, my aforementioned sadness. Italy is determined to phase out internal combustion. You cannot keep your old car. Not sell it. Not give it to friends or relatives. It is stripped of parts for recycling and the denuded frame goes to the compactor. It’s part of the deal. <huge sigh>

Second, Renault, offers its own sweet inducement. Perhaps after not selling many cars during the pandemic and having an over-supply of inventory, they are offering their own discount of another 6000 euros. This is massive. The price dropped from 38,000 to 22,000.  In two big swoops.

As Ron Popeil used to shout on late night American TV about vegetable slicers, “But, wait, there’s more!”

Third, our auto insurance rate was reduced. We already pay an amount that seems not excessive, but this is a real bonus. For longer road trips, we used to rent a more comfortable car, spending hundreds per year on fees and supplemental insurance. When we went in to cancel the old policy and sign the new one, the agent handed over a partial refund – in cash.  This, in spite of the fact that the coverage was significantly greater.

Fourth – and I can barely fathom this one – we are allowed to drive into AND park inside ZTL’s. These “Zona Traffico Limitato” areas are common in larger Italian cities. They forbid cars in certain places, except for those with residence permits. If you are caught inside one – usually by a camera kiosk with clear photo evidence of your guilt – you will soon receive a fine by mail that can approach 200 euros. Which increases hugely if not paid by a certain date. We would get several of these every year due to not knowing where the boundaries were or missing an important sign. Its merely cold comfort to know we are not the only ones who get dinged. Even Italians can easily make this painful error.

Fifth, and of no small importance, we avoid the required annual road tax and car inspections. Normally, these must be done; random roadside stops by a carabinieri will verify that these are up to date. Woe to those who cannot produce current proof. You don’t want to know.

Finally, another unexpected benefit. The car can read signs indicating posted traffic speeds, even temporary ones for road construction. Driving to Rome would always net us a ticket in some remote suburb with a suddenly reduced speed limit. The car automatically slows down to the limit when it sees the sign. 

We did the math. The savings from not buying gas, not maintaining an internal combustion car, not paying the normal taxes, no ZTL fines, no speeding tickets, and not needing to rent cars for long road trips means buying an electric car virtually pays for itself. Not quite, but close. Close enough for it to make a lot of sense. Which is exactly the point of the incentives.

One more little perk to add: If we upgrade the electric service for our house to 7kw, the electric utility will install a charging unit. So when we do that, there will be little need to go to a charging station. In the meantime, the mayor of our village tells us that four stations have been ordered and are soon to arrive. (As with so many things, Signore Vergari is really on top of municipal services. He recently got fiber optics installed for every home and business in the city.)

Now, we do need a loan to buy this car. Following some communication with our commercialista (tax accountant) for key numbers, the application was submitted to Renault HQ in France. We heard back within a few days that the loan was approved. We picked up the car ten days after we picked it out. My wife, who does the driving in this household, reports that the Zoe handles superbly; the seat, controls, and features make it a dream to drive.

I should also mention that, in contrast to U.S. auto dealers, there was no upselling, no high pressure sales techniques, no “I’ll have to take your offer to the manager” bullshit, and no attempts to sell costly special protective coatings or underbody rustproofing. Most of the warranties are for three years. A simple transaction that was completed in an hour.

We are already planning a road trip.

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Mark Hinshaw is a retired architect and city planner who lived in Seattle for more than 40 years. For 12 years he had a regular column on architecture for The Seattle Times and later was a frequent contributor to Crosscut. He now lives in a small hill town in Italy.

3 COMMENTS

  1. This is fortifying for us here in the US who want to do the right thing and get an electric vehicle.
    The same issues are at stake, but Italy is clearly intentional. We could use a little of this paternalism.

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