Once again, the chirpy chap behind the Enterprise counter in Ljubljana proudly handed me the key to an Opel Corsa. The plain white loaf of family transportation – vanilla ice cream, served in a white ceramic bowl, with no raspberry sauce.
This is the fourth overseas vacation in succession that I’ve ended up with a Corsa, but did I grab him by the lapels and scream “not on your nelly, young fellow-me-lad” before demanding something less prosaic? Nope; because when I explore a foreign land I’m far more interested in the roads themselves than the conveyance from which I survey them.
Of course, being just the two of us, and having only checked in one piece of hold luggage to circumvent Easyjet’s additional charges, it wasn’t as if we needed anything bigger. And, yeah, everybody loves an upgrade – because getting something a bit special is ‘winning’, isn’t it? But I didn’t feel any inclination to wrestle for anything bigger or with a swankier badge. The Corsa was An Car.
Unlike my jet-setting journalistic colleagues, to drive overseas is a rare pleasure for me, and the thrill always begins with recalibrating myself for driving from the other side of the car. I welcome you all to watch my wife and I walk up to the car, sigh and then walk around to our correct doors. Every. Single. Time. I must then learn to articulate my neck to look over my left shoulder, rather than my right, and to push the gearstick away from me to move across the gate, rather than pull it towards me. That, incidentally, may be why I found third – halfway across the gate – particularly recalcitrant.
I’ll spend a quick paragraph here to talk about Slovenian roads. I’m sure bad ones exist, but aside from a few cratered sections where the roadmenders haven’t yet got busy, the blacktop we encountered was smooth, even and (outside the villages) spacious. And even if Britain’s surfaces could be brought up to the same standards, we’ll never match Slovenia for geography. Put frankly, our roads probably lie awake at night, dreaming of zig-zagging their way across mountains and gorges. Slovenian roads take such terrain for granted every day.
It was on that kind of landscape that the Corsa had me smiling the most. The Vrsic Pass, carved into the Julian Alps by Russian POWs, deserves to be on anybody’s ‘most memorable roads’ shortlist, with its 48 numbered hairpins (and numerous other severe deviations not thought worthy of being counted) and sharp ascent to 1,611 metres. The view from the top is easy on the eye, too.
The thing is; on roads like these, you don’t need anything particularly special underneath you to really enjoy them. Merely driving them is enough. If anything, the fact that the Corsa had strong objections to tacking most of the slopes in anything but its two lowest gears made the experience all the more engaging – more requiring of thought. Something with a big, torquey diesel engine would have shrugged those mountain roads right off, but that little 1.4-litre engine reminded me just how big a task the car was undertaking.
See, that’s driving. There’s no finer, more apposite term than “negotiating a corner”. That’s precisely what’s going on when you drive. You’re negotiating with the road. It’s a give / take relationship between three bodies: you, the car and the road. It could be that one of the three has the upper hand, or you could all get on like a house on fire. That latter scenario is what the most rewarding drives are made of, and is a tantalising prospect to have in mind whenever you get behind the wheel.
Getting the most out of driving is all about establishing common ground between road, car and driver. It’s about understanding one another’s foibles, and taking account of strengths and weaknesses. The equation is the same irrespective of machinery, geography or driver skill – it’s the numbers that come out at the end that dictate exactly what kind of experience you’re going to receive.
By the end of our week together in Slovenia, the Corsa and I were bonding rather well. I understood that it wasn’t the greatest car in the world, and it knew very well that I’m far from the greatest driver on the planet. I had learned to make good use of the limited available power and I knew just how big a sweep of the steering wheel was necessary to track neatly around a hairpin bend. It was a zen period of kinship, and that’s without having even attempted to explore the ragged edge of the Corsa’s abilities. I didn’t feel that I needed to.
Just being out there, on the road, was enough to keep me happy – and, in truth, the same would have been true if I was back in England. Out of the Corsa’s entire spectrum of capabilities, most of the journeys I made barely exceeded the first 50 percentile. That’s the chunk you use in regular daily life, when getting from A to B or simply rolling through open countryside are the objectives, and exploring the limits of adhesion or trying to set personal bests on your favourite cross-country route are the last thing on your mind.
When reading road tests that dissect the finer points of vehicle dynamics, it’s easy to forget that enjoyment isn’t restricted to those moments of drifting, apex-clipping exhilaration. In any but the most wretched of cars, there’s enjoyment to be had in the mere routine of starting, steering and stopping. We tend to forget that simply being in control of your own motor vehicle is, in itself, a joy.
Perhaps familiarity breeds contempt. That’s why ‘experience days’ where you might spend half an hour at the helm of, for instance, a diesel locomotive, are so popular. For a professional train driver, a 30mph trip along a sleepy branch line would be an intensely mundane experience. But for the 99.8% of the population who make their living elsewhere, to “drive a train” is a thrillingly esoteric thing to have a go at.
Being privileged enough to hold licenses to drive at all, we should adjust our mindset to look forward to every trip we make in our cars. We should remember our childhoods, and how much we wanted to drive when we grew up. And, if even this fails to help rekindle the magic, we should make use of less familiar roads, fresh scenery and unpredictable corners. My trip to Slovenia, taking in countless roads I had never encountered before, reminded me just how much I love driving in even its simplest, most elementary form – getting in a car, switching it on, going past some stuff and then parking up.
Completing a journey, under entirely my own control, and seeing things along the way. That’s what a car – any car – allows me to do. Had I upgraded to something less dreary than the Corsa, my core experience would have been the same. Hell, a Ferrari would have been a scintillating dance partner on those hairpin bends, but then my vacation would have been defined by my rental car, rather than the roads themselves.
Ultimately, it doesn’t really matter what or where you drive. It only matters that you drive.
(Images copyright Chris Haining / Hooniverse 2019)