How to Drive European Cars in Europe

A Primer for Those Who Don't Normally Drive a Manual Transmission Small Car

italian car picture
Typical and Economical Transport in Italy. James Martin

This is for all of you who haven't driven a manual transmission European car before or are used to big engines with lots of low-end torque, as American cars were famous for in the recent past.

The kind of European cars most tourists rent or lease have small, high-performance engines in them. High performance isn't just about going fast, it's about efficiency. These cars need to be driven a bit differently to get the most out of them, in terms of both performance and economy.

Keep the RPMs Up When You Need Power

To make a small, high-performance engine, an engineer pushes the engine's power toward the upper end of the RPM range, where an engine operates more efficiently. Thus, if you notice a hill coming up, you should delay gear changes to use the increased horsepower and torque available at higher RPMs (engine rotations per minute). Keeping things between 3,000 and 4,000 RPM should allow you to climb just about any hill you need to climb.

Does it "hurt" the engine to do this? Nah. It's worse to "lug" the engine--trying to get a heavy car up a hill with too little horsepower and too much fuel is a recipe for disaster. Besides, the condition is temporary; after you get over the hill you'll slip it into 5th gear again and lope along merrily.

Accelerate Briskly Away from Stops

Despite the enormous amount of propaganda to the contrary, tests have proven that a brisk acceleration while shifting frequently results in the best gas mileage for just about any car you can think of--and gas mileage can be important when you're paying $9 a gallon.

Ok, so what is brisk? Well, the peak efficiency is found at about 75% of full throttle (that's the pedal on the right on Continental vehicles). Shift frequently, keeping the average RPM to around 2000 if you're on a flat surface, and accelerate until you reach the speed limit, then back off and leave enough distance between your car and other objects so you don't have to brake to maintain a reasonable distance between you and danger--turning your momentum into overheated brake disks by braking frequently is just about the worse thing you can do--making your car's fuel efficiency drop like a rock.

Speeding Along the Great Highways of Europe

European soil is fertile enough to have created a bumper crop of automatic speed traps with very little gestation time. In Italy, you see them everywhere. Despite the fact that in the past there were lots of unlimited-speed roads in Europe, this is no longer the case in most countries. Be careful. Those tickets are more expensive than a tank of gas--and that ain't cheap.

The fast roads, the autobahns in Germany and autostrada in Italy, are by far the fastest way to get between cities in Europe. They are seldom the most scenic--or cheapest.

Unlike the US, where driving multi-lane highways is a free for all at best, most Europeans drive on the right and pass on the left--meaning you pull out, make your pass, then tuck into traffic on the right again. You will have cars within inches of your back bumper if you decide you're going to enforce your own personal speed limit in the left lane--so if you don't like tailgating as a blood sport, then simply move to the right. (Four European countries drive on the left, and thus the procedures above are reversed: Cyprus, Ireland, Malta and the United Kingdom.)

Alcohol Limits in Europe

The EU recommends a limit of 0.5 grams per liter, or 0.05% blood alcohol, but many countries in Europe have lower limits. The trend is toward lower limits, so check the country you're traveling in. Many of the great restaurants in the European countryside also rent rooms so you can avoid driving after a night of fine food and wine.