A year of pandemic has stopped international – or really any – travel in its tracks. But the world will soon open up and maybe it’s time to plan something big. Here’s our take: Make it a trip to Rome, and amid the diversity of activities you’ll experience there, take in all things automotive, because it is different. Witness the endless sea of tiny city cars parked nose-to-tail – and sometimes backed at right angles to the curb – into impossibly small spots. See the many scooters and motorcycles passing by and the countless ones parked on sidewalks. Note the electric cars and motorcycles charging at street-side public chargers. In tourist-centric piazzas, appreciate the array of human-powered pedicabs with their lightweight, car-like bodies, perhaps the purest form of zero-emission vehicle.
My wife/photographer and I are into cars, travel, food, art, and wine. Italy is a natural since these interests are served up in abundance. In a pre-COVID trip there, we were set to view historic art in Florence, Milan, and Rome, and of course we would be documenting a variety of car-related activities. While we had a full and diverse itinerary planned, we were also looking for something distinctive in the way of a car experience to complement our Italian adventures. We’ve been to the Ferrari, Lamborghini, and Maserati factories in Italy and also attended the Italian Grand Prix, all exciting subjects for words and images. But what’s next?
As if fate was calling, we overheard someone talking about his recent Rome tour in a vintage Fiat 500, and how this was the best part of his Italian vacation. Out came his iPhone, and he shared photos of his group traveling in a caravan tour around Rome, in a colorful collage of vintage Fiat 500s in pink, red, yellow, blue, and white, all piloted by tourists experiencing what appeared to be enormous fun while seeing the sights and in general having a blast. That was what we were looking for, so we booked a night tour with Rome 500 Experience to cap off our upcoming Italian immersion.
When the time came for our tour, we made our way to a commercial structure just a short distance from the Colosseum where Rome 500 Experience stores its colorful array of lovingly restored Fiat 500s. Here, we met up with Alvise Di Giulio, proprietor of this unique tour. His love of this iconic car is evident, the culmination of a decades-long Fiat Cinquecento (500) passion that found him personally owning many of these once-ubiquitous city cars produced between 1957 to 1975, before he decided to make a business of it.
Nearly four million copies of this diminutive city car were produced during its lifetime, powered by a 500 cc engine for most of its run and a 600 cc engine at the end. The Fiat 500’s small physical footprint and high fuel efficiency certainly qualifies it as vintage ‘green’ car in our book. Still, when presented with an array of colors to choose from, it was no 'green' car for us...we selected a red 500 as our ride.
We set off on our night drive knowing little of what to expect, but with a feeling this was going to be memorable. As owner of Rome 500 Experience and one of the tour’s driver-guides, Alvise is as well-versed on Rome’s history and rhythms as anyone we’ve encountered. His understanding of all there is to know about the Eternal City is impressive, as is his ability to get you around in ways that avoid the congestion inherent in any major urban area. We drove unencumbered streets in our little red Fiat 500 and, at times, were passengers while Alvise tooled around with an air of confidence and purpose that comes from having done this many, many times before, with great joy.
Though we’ve been to Rome before, we visited places we hadn’t seen previously. Of course, important touchstones like the Colosseum, Pantheon, Trevi Fountain, and St. Peter’s Square were on the tour’s drive-by and park-and-stop itinerary. But so were many historic places that were never on our list, like the ruins at Palatine Hill where Rome was founded, Piazza Navona, the Arch of Constantine, and of course many lesser-known courtyards and fountains of historic importance. Plus, there was the Castel Sant'Angelo, built in 123 BC as Emperor Hadrian’s mausoleum and later repurposed as a fortress. Many know it today as a scene of dramatic importance in Dan Brown’s film, Angels and Demons.
There were other interesting stops along the way, including a brief time at the Aventine Keyhole, located in an obscure green door at the Villa del Priorato di Malta on Aventine Hill. Peering through this keyhole, as tourists must, provided a view from our stance in Italy, through the grounds of the villa that’s the sovereign territory of Malta, and into Vatican City, the world’s smallest country. Here, we found the keyhole perfectly framing the Vatican’s St. Peter’s Basilica in the distance. Yes, very cool!
Another off-the-beaten stop was at the Bocca della Verita (“Mouth of Truth”), a marble mask with an obscure face and open mouth located in a portico at the Basilica di Santa Maria in Cosmedin, also at Aventine Hill. Visitors who stick their hand in that mouth had better be confident, since legend has it that it bites off the hands of liars. Truth be told…we didn't suffer that fate. It gained notoriety in modern times as Gregory Peck took the challenge in the company of Audrey Hepburn in the 1953 film, Roman Holiday.
Finally, there was a stop at an unusual site in Rome, the Pyramid of Cestius, built from 18-12 BC as a tomb for magistrate Gaius Cestius. The pyramid was later incorporated into Rome’s Aurelian Walls that surround the city, built in 271-275 AD. Across the way from this pyramid and part of the wall is the dramatically illuminated San Paolo Gate flanked by imposing twin turrets.
Touring a world-class city at night is always an amazing experience. We've done this before in Paris, Washington DC, and New York, so we knew that doing this in Rome would be unforgettable. Monuments are illuminated and more dramatic, while places of interest are uncrowded. Doing a tour in a vintage Fiat 500, though, adds an extra dimension of fun. The car is iconic-cool and an important part of Italy’s automotive history, so it gets plenty of attention and thumbs-up from people you pass by on your drive.
One of the nice touches is that Alvise shares his passion for the city, its history, and his vintage cars in a most enthusiastic way. You just don’t get that from more traditional and structured tours. This is special, and Alvise – as well as all his driver-guides – ensures you see the excitement of Rome through his eyes, and his perspective.
We experienced a lot during our time in Italy, and as it turned out this was clearly one of the highlights. It was also the perfect ending for our adventures before boarding our Alitalia flight back to Los Angeles the next morning and our drive back to our headquarters on California’s Central Coast, reminiscent of Italy with its moderate Mediterranean climate.
We have fond memories of this tour and motoring around Rome’s ancient streets in a vintage car of historic importance. We liked it so much, in fact, we plan to return and partake in one of the Rome 500 Experience day tours, perhaps one that includes wine touring or a strategic stop for a sumptuous Italian meal.
La dulce vita!
We’ve been driving Mitsubishi’s Outlander PHEV for 6,000 miles now as part of an ongoing experience with this long-term test vehicle. Over the months, our plug-in hybrid crossover has served as a daily commuter as well as our go-to ride for quick weekend getaways and the occasional longer trip. This time, we decided to see what it’s like to be behind the wheel on a genuine road trip for a solid week, from our offices on California’s Central Coast to the southern reaches of Washington State.
First, let’s say this: The capabilities of the Outlander PHEV plug-in hybrid – Green Car Journal’s 2019 Green SUV of the Year™ – lend a sense of confidence. We knew that we could charge the Outlander’s batteries when desired and convenient to gain about 22 miles of all-electric range during our travels, a nice plus. But we were also aware that taking the time for charging wasn’t necessary. This crossover’s EPA-rated hybrid range of 310 miles would be plenty to get us where we wanted to go, without hesitation or delays. That’s an important thing when packing a few thousand miles of combined day and late-night driving into a seven day period.
Our trip began by heading northbound from San Luis Obispo, California on US-101, where we crested the Cuesta Grade and continued toward the busy San Francisco Bay corridor three hours ahead. We were hoping an early departure would allow avoiding the unpredictable traffic there. Success! It turns out that late morning near the Bay Area provides a decent travel window with reasonably free-flowing traffic. Then it was onward toward Oregon on US-101, transitioning to I-680 and I-505 and ultimately the long stretch of I-5 that would take us to Washington State.
Since this was a road trip, adventure is built into the journey. That means if something interesting presents itself along the way, we may just stop to check it out. Sure enough, this happened less than an hour north of Sacramento, where a series of highway billboards enticed travelers to stop at Granzella’s Restaurant in Williams, a sleepy, postage-stamp-size of a city that’s home to about 5,000 people. It was lunchtime, so why not?
We found plenty of cars in Granzella's parking lot but also no wait inside. Food choices here are plentiful, with options for ordering from a fully-stocked deli or sitting down for a home-style meal in their restaurant. Being traveler-oriented, Granzella’s encourages you to wander around inside, checking out their sports bar, wine room, coffee bar, and olive room, plus of course the array of gifts aimed toward travelers. There’s also a separate Granzella’s Gourmet & Gifts store across the street and Granzella’s Inn across the way if an overnight stop is needed. We were on a tight time schedule, so it was back on I-5 for another 550 miles of road time before our anticipated arrival in Vancouver.
Daily experience in a long-term test car lends a thorough sense of what it's like to live with a vehicle, offering an opportunity to fully experience its capabilities. Beyond that, longer drives like this allow uninterrupted hours behind the wheel to reflect on a vehicle's features, large and small, that either enhance the driving experience or fall short of expectations.
We can say it is hard to find fault with the Outlander PHEV. This crossover provides a spacious and well-appointed cabin offering very comfortable and supportive seating for long drives, plus plenty of room to store all the stuff needed for long trips. Our considerable time on the road was made all the more pleasant since the Outlander PHEV’s ride is smooth and handling confident, with plenty of power for any driving situation we encountered.
Along the way we made good use of this model’s Apple CarPlay capability. Of course, driver assist systems like adaptive cruise control, forward collision mitigation, blind spot warning with lane change assist, rear cross traffic alert, and rear-view camera enhanced the driving experience and sense of safety. Its heated steering wheel is a real plus. While always handy, we really came to appreciate this crossover’s retractable cargo cover that kept things out of sight and more secure while parked at restaurants and hotels during our week on the road. We also made use of its convenient power lift gate multiple times every day.
The Outlander PHEV’s total driving range of 310 miles is well-suited to longer trips like this. Range is something we rarely think about on a daily basis since our everyday driving is typically less than 20 miles, so often enough we’re driving on battery power and there’s no need for gas at all. When we do drive farther to nearby cities, the Outlander PHEV seamlessly transitions from electric to hybrid power once the battery is depleted. There is no range anxiety because we can travel as far as needed on gasoline. Back in the garage, we charge again overnight and we’re once again driving on battery power.
It’s worth noting that the Outlander PHEV has a smaller gas tank than the conventionally-powered Outlander, 11.3 versus 16.6 gallons, resulting in less overall driving range than the conventional gas model. This is due to design changes for accommodating this PHEV’s 12 kWh lithium-ion battery pack and other PHEV drivetrain components. Packaging the vehicle’s electric componentry in this way means the battery and other necessary equipment do not infringe on passenger or cargo space, something that’s bothered us for years in some other electrified models. So, all things considered, we’re good with trading some hybrid range for additional roominess, especially since refueling at a gas station is quick and easy.
Speaking of ‘refueling,’ there was the potential for quickly charging at an array of public fast charge locations during our drive. A growing number of Level 3 charging opportunities are located along major routes in California and other states, and the Outlander PHEV is capable of CHAdeMO DC fast charging to 80 percent battery capacity in 20 minutes. We didn’t feel the need on this trip, though we have done this at other times.
That said, charging at the Level 2 charger at our hotel in Vancouver, the Heathman Lodge, was a real plus. Once we arrived in Washington, we plugged in several times to get an overnight charge and enjoyed our no-cost electric drives around town. During these drives the Outlander PHEV motors along on zero-emission battery power at an EPA estimated 74 MPGe.
Driving through Northern California and the Pacific Northwest, there’s no denying you’ll find some pretty incredible scenery ranging from mountain ranges, imposing dormant volcanoes, and awe-inspiring redwood forests to scenic coastlines, rivers, and lakes. You will also find an obsession with the mythical Bigfoot. Suffice it to say there will be plenty of places to stop with ‘Bigfoot’ included in their theme, and lots of opportunities to buy souvenirs. As a side note, we did an ‘On the Trail of Bigfoot’ road trip adventure and article several decades back, so this definitely brought a smile to our face.
Along our drive we had the opportunity to visit cities large and small, drive through a redwood tree, take in scenic coastal areas in Oregon like Newport and Lincoln City, and in general enjoy the benefits of a real road trip. Of course, there were stops at roadside fruit stands, interesting eateries, and places with character that simply called to us for a closer look. Photo ops were abundant.
During our trip we came to truly understand why Mitsubishi’s Outlander PHEV is the world's best-selling plug-in hybrid vehicle. Taking advantage of technology development and learnings from this automaker’s earlier i-MiEV electric vehicle program, the Outlander PHEV combines advanced parallel and series hybrid drive, along with Mitsubishi’s Super All-Wheel Control system technology developed through Mitsubishi's Lancer Evolution. Plus, for those with the need, the Outlander PHEV can tow 1500 pounds.
This is one high-tech crossover, offered at a surprisingly affordable entry price point of $36,095, considering the cost of competitive crossover SUVs with similar capabilities at tens of thousands of dollars more. It features efficient hybrid power that integrates a 2.0-liter gasoline engine and generator along with a pair of high-performance electric motors, one up front and one at the rear.
The Outlander PHEV operates in three modes automatically chosen by the vehicle's control system to optimize efficiency and performance. In Series Hybrid mode the electric motors drive the vehicle with the engine augmenting battery power and generating electricity to power the motors. Electrical energy is also delivered to the battery pack. The 2.0-liter engine assists with mechanical power at times when quick acceleration or hill climbing are needed.
Parallel Hybrid mode finds the gasoline engine driving the front wheels with the two electric motors adding additional power as required. The engine also charges the battery pack in Parallel Hybrid mode under certain driving conditions.
Then there’s all-electric driving solely on batteries, selectable with an ‘EV’ control on the center console. We have found EV mode ideal for around-town travel or regional drives near our offices, and in fact we’ve noted no discernable difference when driving in all-electric or hybrid modes.
While regenerative braking in all modes is done automatically with the vehicle feeding electricity back to the battery pack during coast-down, there’s the added advantage of controlling how aggressively regen works. This capability is controlled through six levels of regenerative braking selectable by convenient steering wheel paddles, with one mode allowing coasting for blocks.
The Outlander PHEV proved to be an exceptional vehicle for our Pacific Northwest adventures, offering everything we could want in a long-distance cruiser. With our road trip adventure now a pleasant memory, we’re looking forward to our continuing daily drives and explorations in our long-term Outlander PHEV test vehicle over the coming months.
There are countless reasons to visit California’s picturesque Monterey Peninsula, home of historic Monterey with its Cannery Row of Steinbeck lore, Fisherman’s Wharf, and charming Carmel-by-the-Sea. We’ve taken road trips to this storied destination many times over the years on holidays, to take in races at Laguna Seca Raceway (now Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca), and attend automotive events of one stripe or another.
The drive from Los Angeles to Monterey is one of contrasts. Heading north on California’s Highway 101 from Southern California, you’re treated to diverse scenery ranging from crowded cityscapes to rolling hills and wide-open spaces. It’s when you reach Ventura that things begin to markedly change. This is where, for a time, your vista to the west gives way to brilliant blue Pacific Ocean and the Channel Islands, signaling a welcome transition that finds you leaving city life behind for the more relaxed lifestyle of the Central Coast.
The next 275 miles are quite scenic with such jewels as Santa Barbara, the Riviera of the Pacific; San Luis Obispo, a wonderful mission town with its circa-1772 Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa; and the bucolic Paso Robles, a short drive after cresting the Cuesta Grade.
Our latest road trip to the area began in San Luis Obispo behind the wheel of a 2019 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid, one of this automaker’s high-profile answers to driving ‘green.’ Our drive this time was via US 101 to Salinas and then SR 68 to Monterey, an easy 2 1/2-hour trip. Along the way you pass through a landscape of rolling hills, farmlands, and wide-open spaces dotted with fruit and vegetable stands, small towns, and a few modest cities that are worth a quick visit if you have the time.
A spectacular alternative is negotiating winding Highway 1 from San Luis Obispo to Monterey, the most awe-inspiring section of California’s historic El Camino Real (Spanish for “The King’s Highway”). El Camino Real is the heart of the historic Mission Trail that connects the state’s 21 Spanish missions established between 1769 to 1833, running from San Diego to Santa Cruz . From Cambria to Monterey, this section of El Camino Real hugs the coastline and goes through Big Sur, providing truly breathtaking views of the Pacific Ocean along the way. Be prepared for at least a 4 hour or longer drive on this more leisurely route, hence the reason we take US 101 more often than not. Still, we drive Highway 1 every few years as a reminder of just what an unhurried and sensory fulfilling road trip can be for the soul.
As the miles roll by, it isn’t lost on us how the Sonata Hybrid is a stylish and accommodating vehicle for our road trip. The hybrid variant of Hyundai’s popular Sonata sedan is quite fuel efficient at a rated 46 mpg on the highway and 40 mpg in city driving, which goes a long way toward mitigating carbon emissions. It’s also ideal for road trips with a driving range up to 668 miles on a tank of fuel.
While the Sonata Hybrid has the overall bold and distinctive look of its conventionally powered counterpart, there are some distinguishing features. These include a slightly different front and rear fascia and aerodynamic wheels that help achieve a low drag coefficient of 0.24. It’s powered by a 2.0-liter GDI Atkinson cycle, 4-cylinder engine with a Blue Drive parallel hybrid system. Engine output is 154 horsepower with 140 lb-ft torque to provide spirited and confident driving.
Like all Sonatas, the hybrid offers standard Bluetooth with audio streaming and a 7.0-inch infotainment screen with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto compatibility. Standard safety tech includes blind spot detection and rear cross traffic alert. New standard features on the Limited trim include automatic emergency braking, smart cruise control with start/stop, and lane keeping assist. Importantly the Sonata comes with a hefty 5-year or 60,000-mile bumper-to-bumper warranty, or 10 years and 100,000 miles of coverage for the powertrain.
As we arrive in Monterey, we’re reminded of the very special nature of this place. Views here are among the awe-inspiring in the world. If you ever have reason to question that, just take a leisurely journey along the area’s famed 17 Mile Drive from Pacific Grove to Pebble Beach as the route hugs the Pacific coastline.
Stop along the way at such scenic vistas as Spanish Bay, Bird Rock, Stillwater Cove, and Point Joe, where converging currents create a mesmerizing and constantly restless sea. Take time to appreciate The Lone Cypress, which has majestically withstood the elements for over 250 years. Take in the stately Lodge at Pebble Beach and appreciate the Pebble Beach Golf Links, considered one of the finest golf courses in the world, then get a bite at one of the resort’s excellent restaurants.
Beyond its grandeur, there are other compelling reasons to head to the Monterey Peninsula. One of the highlights is the annual spectacle of Monterey Car Week each August, a celebration of classic and modern vehicles with a 10-day series of events capped by The Quail – A Motorsports Gathering at Quail Lodge & Golf Club, and the renowned Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance that’s taken place at this famed golf resort for the past 60 years.
We recently attended both along with other elements of Monterey Car Week, including Exotics on Cannery Row and classic car auctions with some of the most amazing and historic automotive iron on the planet. In recent years, these events have seen a major showing by automakers at exhibits and pavilions as they display their current vehicles, along with concepts, pre-production, and electrified models. Examples of advanced and electrified vehicles on hand included the electric Polestar 1, Porsche Mission E, Karma Revero, Mercedes-AMG Project One, and Byton K-Byte.
Beyond the visceral thrill imparted by all manner of automotive history on display, one of our most memorable moments was during an afternoon at the Mecum Auction. Here, we witnessed a vintage Porsche 550 Spyder (think James Dean) bid up to $925,000…without selling because it failed to meet the seller’s reserve price.
More often than not, our sojourns to the area have included stays at the seaside Monterey Plaza and Clement Monterey hotels, or the Portola Hotel at Monterey Bay adjacent to Fisherman’s Wharf. The Carmel Valley Ranch Resort, where you can appreciate an inevitable greeting by deer and perhaps even wild turkeys, is also a favorite. All are located within easy reach of such memorable Monterey attractions as Fisherman’s Wharf, the historic Carmel Mission, the Maritime Museum of Monterey, the Monterey Bay Aquarium, and the historic Carmel Mission that was founded in 1771 by the Franciscan friars.
Heading home with the sights and sounds of Monterey behind us, we can only say that this is one road trip that everyone should take at some time in their life, if it’s in the cards. Doing so in the month of August when Monterey Car Week is happening, of course, makes it all the better.
Photography by Sheree Gardner Cogan