For members


‘How we used a government bonus to buy an electric car in Italy’

People looking to buy an electric car in Italy can now make huge savings on both the purchase price and the future running costs. But there is one catch, as writer Mark Hinshaw explains.

‘How we used a government bonus to buy an electric car in Italy'
The new Renault Zoe on the Le Marche coast. Photo: Sunny Savina Bertollini

We have owned a plain, black Kia Picanto for three years. Paid 2,000 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 its 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.  

READ ALSO: ‘Expect the unexpected’: What you need to know about driving in Italy

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 US I was only mildly intrigued. Right. 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 have been looking 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 sadness in the first paragraph. 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 frame goes to the compactor as part of the deal. <a 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 6,000 euros. This is massive. 

The price dropped from 38,000 to 22,000.  In two big swoops.

Photo: Sunny Savina Bertollini

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

Third, our auto insurance rate is reduced by up to 50%. 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 – 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 Italy’s ZTLs, or ‘Zona Traffico Limitato’ areas.

These are common in Italian towns and 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. It’s merely cold comfort to know we are not the only ones who get dinged. Even Italians can easily make this painful error.

Life in Italy: ‘How our shopping habits have changed since we moved from the US’

Fifth, and of no small importance, we avoid the required annual road tax and car inspections. 

Normally, these must be done; roadside stops by carabinieri police will often check 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 traffic allowable traffic speeds, even temporary ones for road construction. Driving to Rome would always net us a ticket in some remote suburb with a sudden 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. 

Photo: Mark Hinshaw

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, Fabrizio is really on top of municipal services. (He also recently got fiber optics installed for everyone.)

Now, we did need a loan to buy this car. Following some communication with our commercialista (accountant) for key numbers, the application was submitted to Renault HQ in France. We heard back within a few days and the loan was approved. We picked up the car ten days after we picked it out.  

We are already planning a road trip.

Mark Hinshaw is a retired city planner who moved to Le Marche with his wife two years ago. A former columnist for The Seattle Times, he contributes to journals, books and other publications.

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Member comments

  1. Very interesting article. Can you tell me what village Mark Hinshaw lives in? It sounds like a great place to live!

      1. Thank you. Do you have earthquakes in that area? Do you speak fluent Italian? What is your broadband internet speed in mbps now that you have fiber optic cable? Do you get any American TV?
        Thank you so much for telling me where you live. Julir

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For members


COMPARE: Which countries in Europe have the strictest drink-drive limits?

Certain countries around Europe have stricter policies than others regarding drinking and driving and harsher punishments for those caught exceeding legal limits. Here's what you need to know.

COMPARE: Which countries in Europe have the strictest drink-drive limits?

European countries set their own driving laws and speed limits and it’s no different when it comes to legal drink-drive limits.

While the safest thing to do of course, is to drink no alcohol at all before driving it is useful to know what the limit is in the country you are driving in whether as a tourist or as someone who frequently crosses European borders by car for work.

While some countries, such as the Czech Republic, have zero tolerance for drinking and driving, in others people are allowed to have a certain amount of alcohol in their blood while driving.

However, not only can the rules be different between countries, they are usually stricter for commercial (or bus) drivers and novice drivers as well. Besides that, the blood alcohol concentration (BAC) is extremely difficult to estimate, so the old “one beer is ok” standards no longer safely apply.

In the end, the only way to be safe is to avoid consuming alcohol before driving. Any amount will slow reflexes while giving you dangerous higher confidence. According to the UK’s National Health Service, there is no ‘safe’ drinking level.

How is blood alcohol level measured?

European countries mostly measure blood alcohol concentration (BAC), which is the amount, in grams, of alcohol in one litre of blood.

After alcohol is consumed, it will be absorbed fast from the stomach and intestine to the bloodstream. There, it is broken down by a liver-produced enzyme.

Each person will absorb alcohol at their own speed, and the enzyme will also work differently in each one.

The BAC will depend on these metabolic particularities as well as body weight, gender, how fast and how much the person drank, their age and whether or not (and how much) they have eaten, and even stress levels at the time.

In other words there are many things that may influence the alcohol concentration.

The only way to effectively measure BAC is by taking a blood test – even a breathalyser test could show different results. Still, this is the measuring unit used by many EU countries when deciding on drinking limits and penalties for drivers.

Here are the latest rules and limits.

Austria, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Switzerland, Greece, Netherlands, Belgium, Portugal, and Croatia

In most EU countries, the limit is just under 0.5g/l for standard drivers (stricter rules could be in place for novice or professional drivers).

This could be exceeded by a man with average weight who consumed one pint of beer (containing 4.2% alcohol) and two glasses of red wine (13% alcohol) while having dinner.

If a person is caught driving with more than 0.8g/l of blood alcohol content in Austria, they can pay fines of up to € 5,900 and to have their license taken for one year in some cases.

In France, if BAC exceeds 0.8g/l, they could end up with a 2-year jail sentence and a € 4,500 fine. In Germany, penalties start at a € 500 fine and a one-month license suspension. In Greece, drunk drivers could face up to years of imprisonment.

In Denmark, first time offenders are likely to have their licences suspended and could be required to go on self-paid alcohol and traffic courses if BAC levels are low. Italy has penalties that vary depending on whether or not the driver has caused an accident and could lead to car apprehension, fines and prison sentences.

In Spain, going over a 1.2g/l limit is a criminal offence that could lead to imprisonment sentences and hefty fines. 

Norway, Sweden, and Poland

In Norway, Sweden, and Poland, the limit for standard drivers is 0.2g/l. It could take a woman with average weight one standard drink, or one can of beer, to reach that level.

Penalties in Norway can start at a one month salary fine and a criminal record. In Poland, fines are expected if you surpass the limit, and you could also have your license revoked and receive a prison sentence.

Czech Republic, Hungary, and Slovakia

The Czech Republic, Hungary, and Slovakia have one of the strictest rules in the European Union. There is no allowed limit of alcohol in the blood for drivers.

In the Czech Republic, fines start at € 100 to € 800, and a driving ban of up to one year can be instituted for those driving with a 0.3 BAC level. However, the harshest penalties come if the BAC level surpasses 1 g/l, fines can be up to € 2,000, and drivers could be banned from driving for 10 years and imprisoned for up to three years.

This is intended to be a general guide and reference. Check the current and specific rules in the country you plan to travel to. The easiest and best way to be safe and protect yourself and others is to refrain from drinking alcohol and driving.