Italy’s Driving Craze: Odd Names, High Speeds

James Raia

Occasionally, a Ferrari or another elite supercar that made the country’s automotive industry famous, maneuver along small roads in Naples, Italy. But they’re outliers, open-road machines glorified in movies and showcased by snooty auction houses.

Little cars, some familiar but with unfamiliar names reign in the nation’s maze of constant congestion and ego-driven driving.

Italy's Driving Craze: Odd Names, High Speeds 1

Narrow, often cobblestoned streets are the canvas for the pedestrian-versus-driver turf conflicts. Who goes first and why is hard to determine. It’s a skill honed more by instantaneous visual assertiveness rather than emotional outbursts.

For automotive enthusiasts, observing the vast array of scooters, new and old petite vehicles from Fiat and the small transport vehicles, the Ape Calessino made by Piaggio, can supersede the frustration of the prevailing illogical driving habits.

The three-wheelers are everywhere. They’re lined up as taxis for tourists, some open air, others covered and customized with elaborate decorations or artwork-style paint jobs. They’re far more compelling than taxis and don’t advance quickly in the rest of the rush of motor vehicles.

Still, determining what kinds of cars pass by within inches or parking in any way conceivable provides the fun.

What is a Renault Captur, SEAT Ibiza and Mii, Dacia Sandero or Lancia Ypsilon? Perhaps more familiar, how about a Nissan Micra, Ford Vignale or Volkswagen Lupo?

Most carmakers selling cars globally distribute their lineups by different names in different countries. Reasons vary but one common explanation is the names of some cars sold in the United States don’t translate well in other countries.

Naming cars differently around the world is also related to marketing savvy. Manufacturers hope to lure more buyers with the allure of multiple names for a Honda Accord or a Toyota Camry. Naming a car differently in different countries can also save embarrassment.

The most well-known example is the Mitsubishi Pajero. It wasn’t sold in the United States and became defunct a few years ago. Nonetheless, it was called the Mitsubishi Montero in Spanish-speaking countries because Pajero is a Spanish slang word for masturbation.

Maserati, Alfa Romeo, Lancia, Lamborghini, Pagani and Mazzanti all have their places among iconic Italian cars. The competition among some of the carmakers, as depicted in the recent film Ferrari, is as passionate and obsessive as any country’s automotive legend. But none of the manufacturers has anything on Fiat.

Fan or not, the Fiat 500 is likely the most famous (infamous?) vehicle still prevalent in Italy. Known originally as “The Cinquecento” it was introduced by Fiat Company in July 1957 and manufactured through 1975. Designed by Dante Giacosa, the 500 was marketed as cheap, functional and economical. It can do what supercars can’t.

The 500 was an ideal town car for post-war II Italy and was tiny by any definition. It was slightly longer a nine feet and had a 479cc, two-cylinder, rear-mounted engine. More than four million were made. It remains relevant nearly 70 years later, maligned by many, but equally embraced.

Discontinued in the United States in 2020, Fiat changed its mind and reintroduced the 500 as a 2024 but solely as an electric vehicle.

Still, it’s more enjoyable to view a new Fiat in Italy. Even better is seeing an original perfectly negotiating small roads. Its driver may pass too closely and not seem to care. But it’s the Italian way and something to behold.

Article Last Updated: June 4, 2024.

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