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Driving in Portugal

April 2009

Before we arrived, we’d read that Portugal was statistically one of the most dangerous countries in Europe in which to drive. However, I have tended to take alarming warnings with a grain of salt since our first trip to Europe in 1968. A Time magazine article had said that "the only thing that an Italian likes better than passing someone on a curve is passing someone who's passing someone on a curve." It didn't take me long to realize that, although drivers were passing on two-lane roads in the face of oncoming traffic, the cars were small enough, the roads wide enough, and the drivers considerate enough to move over a little, that it wasn't really unsafe. And I fit right in. Although I must admit that I never saw anyone passing someone who was passing someone on a curve.

However, we had not even made it out of Lisbon when events seemed to bear out the warnings. Approaching a green light, we were forced to slow for a stream of red-light runners darting across in front of us. Fortunately, such behavior was rare, but the autoestrada drivers presented their own perils.

Autoestradas are similar to the German Autobahns, although with a toll, according to Rick Steves, of about $5 per hour. Solidly built, with a uniformly smooth, well-maintained surface, the Portuguese road network provides quick access to most major points of interest. We soon found another similarity to the Autobahn – many drivers seemed to treat the 120 kmph (about 75 mph) speed limit as merely a suggestion. The first time someone whizzed by at about 120 mph I just gawked, but it soon became commonplace, and some disappeared so quickly that they must have been doing 150! In our week of autoestrada driving – 685 miles – we saw only one police car, but people we asked said that they do levy large fines, revoke driver’s licenses, and even jail egregious offenders.

The speeders did include the usual suspects – BMWs, Mercedes, Porsches, but also many others that seemed to be garden-variety sedans. We didn’t have that temptation1 – the 130 kmph that we eventually decided it was safe to drive was an effort to maintain on upgrades. Once, on a steeper hill, I tried downshifting to fourth. The rpms jumped from 3,000 to 4,000, but I couldn't coax out any more speed. I finally found that just flooring it in fifth was the best technique, although I was concerned about how that would affect mileage.

We soon encountered, too often for comfort, some really weird behavior – someone would gradually appear from behind and lurk about 3' from our rear bumper, seemingly considering their next move for the next several miles. They’d finally decide that passing was a good idea, after which they’d swoop in about 3' in front, before pulling away down the road.

Occasionally, we’d see a series of chevrons painted on the road,

whose purpose was explained by Burma-Shave-like signs. The signs warned that if you could only see one marker between you and the preceding car, you were dangerously close, while two markers indicated a safe distance. However, based on what we’d already witnessed, I think that the real purpose was to indicate that when the preceding car was at the point of the chevron, you should be at the tail.

However, not all the unusual characteristics we witnessed were negative. For example, drivers always stopped for pedestrians entering a crosswalk. And I just realized that based on what you've read so far, you might think that our driving experience was harrowing, but that wasn't the case. Except around Lisbon and some other cities, the autoestradas are lightly trafficked and one can cruise easily for miles through the scenic countryside. We even found a classical FM station that somehow stayed within range throughout most of our travels.

We did find some quirks in the otherwise smooth-functioning autoestrada system. At one entrance, we were directed along a temporary road outside the highway until we reached a left turn, leading to a Stop sign at a gap in the barrier. From where we had to make a right turn – hopefully into a gap in the oncoming traffic. I did mention the 120 kmph – seemingly minimum – speed limit. Since you’re reading this, you know we did successfully accomplish that entry.

On the autoestrada, you’re never sure where to expect a tollbooth. There is usually one when entering and exiting although not necessarily if you’re entering from or exiting to another one. And sometimes one will appear in the middle of nowhere. Credit cards are accepted, and several times we just handed one over along with our ticket – since it requires no signature it was actually quicker than waiting to view the toll, finding the right amount of cash, and paying. However, we’re glad we didn’t do that when we exited the A13 near Evora, after an hour-and-a-half or so from where we had entered.

The display indicated €43.50 – almost $60! Using Rick Steves' estimate, we'd have had to start in the middle of the night and drive all day to run up that big a bill! The attendant initially was unresponsive to our protests about such an illogical charge, but she eventually summoned a manager from a nearby building. After some consideration, he announced that the correct amount was €11.50. Of course, that was better, but it still was nearly twice the previous maximum, and there was no way we could determine what it should have been. At least we were fortunate that it didn't occur at the automated tollbooth we had previously encountered. It had already eaten our ticket when it displayed the charge – who knows if we could have eventually received any satisfaction if it had thought that we owed $60?

One evening in Cascais we were taking the shuttle back to the hotel when a motorcycle darted through tiny gaps in the rush-hour traffic. The driver lamented that the young think they are immortal. I was reminded of motorcyclists we had seen on the autoestradas flashing by as speedily as the fastest cars and asked him if many died in accidents. "Oh yes," he said. "And worse – there is the loss of limbs." I hadn’t considered that gruesome possibility.


1 The car rental was a last-minute reservation, from Ft. Lauderdale the morning we were to board the Seabourn Legend. Kemwel had a good deal on a “compact” car – Volkswagen Golf or similar. With the narrow streets in most European towns, and the high cost of fuel, a compact was only the third smallest. Although if they rented a SmartCar, it would be the fourth.

I don’t know if such parking is actually legal, but we were impressed by how well they kept up with autoestrada traffic.

The website only listed an airport pickup site, which would cost an additional €25, but when we called Kemwel’s 800 number, we found they also had a downtown location with no extra charge. As the day of our departure from Lisbon neared, and we couldn’t even find the street on local maps, we showed the front desk our reservation and asked if they knew where it was. They said, “Why, they have an office in our hotel!” Not quite, but it was in their parking garage, where they had it ready when we left.

It turned out to be a Fiat Linea. In fact, we had a flashback to the aforementioned first trip to Europe, when we also rented a Fiat from Kemwel. I don’t remember the model, but it had a lot of pep, although it garnered no respect on the Autobahns when we crossed into Germany – we had to follow in the wake of German cars whose performance was recognized, and for which others would hastily vacate the passing lane.

As I said, this model had no such aspirations, but it was quite stylish,

and very comfortable, with many high-end features: air conditioning with automatic climate control, power door locks, windows, and side view mirrors, remote locking; even, we discovered, a very useful back-up proximity warning sensor. No navigation system, but we had brought our own.

When we returned home, I researched the Linea and found that it was initially built in Istanbul, and is becoming increasingly popular in India. The diesel engine has a maximum output of 77 horsepower, which explains its autoestrada performance. However, it also explains its mileage performance: 39 miles per gallon, and not many of those miles in an economical speed range. The fact that diesel fuel is 20% cheaper than gasoline ($4.75 vs $5.90(!) per gallon) also was welcome.

By coincidence, the April Motor Trend magazine in my dentist’s office had a brief article about Fiat’s merger with Chrysler. One of their suggestions was to bring in the Linea, as a four-door Chevy Aveo/Nissan Versa competitor. I’m not familiar with those cars (which Edmunds lists as subcompacts), but for the $15,000 price for which it sells in India, and based on our experience, it seems like a good bet to me.

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