Here's my problem with today's American cars: they have no sense of humor. They're so smug and serious, so full of gravitas, and so damn big. And with only a few exceptions, they all look alike. Back in the old days, a man's automobile was an extension of his personality, whether he was a yuppie or a greaser, a hippie or a jock. Now every car seems to be an extension of John Ashcroft—stern, stoic, and just no fun.
Which brings me to the Smart car, a diminutive two-seater manufactured by Daimler-Chrysler and sold throughout Europe and Japan. Debuting in 1998 as a roofed alternative to the moped, it was designed to appeal to urban drivers, or anyone willing to sacrifice vanity for better mileage, low emissions, and the ability to park inside a phone booth. Even compared to other eco-friendly cars, the Smart was beyond tiny: just eight feet long, five feet shorter than a VW Beetle. It looked like a doorstop. Most dismissed it as a joke, and hardly anybody bought one.
Well, give anything silly-looking enough time and eventually it will seem kind of cool. Designers have created newer models with a bolder appearance, more bells and whistles, and improved safety features. The brand has since won over some 430,000 drivers, and the line now includes a nifty convertible (the Cabrio) and a sleek sports car (the Roadster, due out in Europe this spring). If you're not one of those drivers who equate the size of their vehicle with that of other appendages—and if you have a sense of humor—the Smart just may be for you. Indeed, Daimler-Chrysler eventually hopes to introduce the brand to America, most likely in cities with limited parking. Meanwhile, Avis, National, and other companies are renting Smarts to tourists in Europe, not only for city driving but for jaunts around the countryside.
Hold on—the countryside?Sure, the Smart is ideal for, say, truffle shopping in the Marais. But can a three-cylinder Barcalounger realistically carry a couple on a road trip around the Côte d'Azur?Can it handle those breakneck French superhighways?The twisting mountain passes of the Grande Corniche?Can it compete in the swanky enclaves of Monaco—or perhaps more important, can its tiny trunk hold four days' worth of luggage?On a recent trip to the Riviera, my girlfriend and I took the challenge.
We packed light, only one rollaway and a backpack. Of course, minimizing luggage is one thing; shrinking body parts is another. I'm six foot one, and accustomed to static-cling hairdos from rubbing my head on car roofs. When the rental agent in Nice showed us our little Cabrio, my neck tensed in panic. But the interior was more spacious than it looked, with a good five inches of headroom. Indeed, throughout the trip, we often forgot we were in a tiny car until we climbed out.
Our Cabrio Passion convertible was reddish-orange ("Phat Red," the company calls it) with silver trim. "Outside, it's all plastic panels," said the agent, "so the exterior can be replaced in no time." This did not sound encouraging: a plastic-sided car?The agent quickly assuaged our fears. "Not to worry, this is one of the safest cars you can ride in." Why?Smart's acclaimed "Tridion safety cell" surrounds passengers in a sturdy cage of steel that has passed crash tests with flying colors.
With a top speed of 85 mph, the Cabrio isn't the fastest ride on the block, but it gets more than 50 miles to the gallon (a welcome perk, since a gallon costs up to $5 in France). And the 2002 model isn't nearly as funny-looking as its predecessors. It's still cute, but in a stylish way. Bug-eyed indicator dials pop out of the dash, like something from the Alessi design catalogue. Seats are upholstered in breathable fabric, with rear vents that circulate air across your back. For more serious drivers, the transmission lets you choose between automatic and manual shift. Our bags fit nicely in the luggage compartment, all nine cubic feet of it. In short (and I do mean "short"), the Cabrio had almost everything you'd need in a rental car. All it lacked was a bumper sticker reading MON AUTRE VOITURE A UN MOTEUR ("MY OTHER CAR HAS A MOTOR").
The skies cleared as soon as we left the rental agency in Nice, as if to honor our bundle of Phat Red joy. I steered us toward the beach, slaloming effortlessly through downtown traffic. We waved at the frustrated driver of an SUV as our perky little Astérix outpaced his lumbering Ford Obélix.
Parking turned out to be a singular thrill. I found myself squeezing into minuscule spaces just to see if I could, then zipping off again. In La Vieille Ville of Nice, I actually parked perpendicularly in a parallel spot, though I suspect this was illegal. The parking space was next to the Café de Turin, off Place Garibaldi. Niçoise women were queued up at the fishmonger's stall outside, so we stopped in for a lunch of oysters, prawns, and deliciously briny urchins.
Tooling around the city was no problem for the Smart. The real test came en route to the mountaintop village of Èze, just seven miles east of Nice. In the hills above the coast lurks a tortuous landscape of switchbacks, pitch-black tunnels, and vertiginous cliffs—scary in any vehicle, let alone an overgrown paperweight. The 1,300-foot ascent inspires an existential crisis at every turn. (The road is aptly named for Friedrich Nietzsche.) Would the Cabrio make the climb?It helped that additional gear-shift "paddles" are mounted on the steering wheel, for easy shifting through turns. (I gripped the wheel with both hands the whole way up.) And the engine delivered impressive power even on the steepest slopes.
No vehicles are allowed in the village proper, whose narrow lanes were built just wide enough for donkey carts. The medieval staircases and cobblestoned alleys fill up with tour groups, but after sundown we seemed to have the moonlit village to ourselves. We wandered down vaulted passageways illuminated by torches, and stumbled upon hidden gardens smelling of sage and orange blossoms.
Our hotel, the Château de la Chèvre d'Or, was about as different in spirit from a Smart car as a hotel could be: seriously old-school and ridiculously luxe. The Edge, guitarist from U2, held his wedding here last June. "I wonder if this was Bono's room," my girlfriend said as we breakfasted on our balcony. The view was extraordinary; we could discern the hazy outline of Corsica just below the horizon. A paraglider drifted by on the breeze, only 100 feet away.
But our beach buggy proved too hard to resist. Off we buzzed along the coast: top down, sunshine rushing in, radio blasting Italian disco. I even worked up the nerve to try the autoroute, France's superhighway. The Smart didn't shake too much at top speed, though we did have to shout above the engine's roar.
After a while, I began to suspect that the gas gauge was broken: Why wasn't the needle going down?In the end, we stopped only once to fill the seven-gallon tank. Yet we covered plenty of ground—400 miles in all—from the far reaches of Cap Ferrat and Cap Martin to the lemon-grove hills above Menton, the most Italian of the Riviera towns. We went even farther than planned, making the trek up to St.-Paul-de-Vence to see the Mirós and Giacomettis at the Fondation Maeght, the magnificent, free-form museum and sculpture garden where indoors and out seamlessly merge. We explored the dizzying heights of the Grande Corniche, pulling over at every turnoff for a Mediterranean vista that was even more dramatic than the last.
And, of course, we had to go to Monaco. There was something irresistible about driving such a defiantly small, eco-friendly car into the world capital of excess.
Monaco has no tangible border; we knew we'd arrived only when we spotted a Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow with a satellite dish on the roof. That, and the high-rise buildings balanced precariously on steep hillsides. There's barely any room left for new construction in this three-mile-wide kingdom, and even less room for automobiles. But this hasn't stopped residents and visitors from piloting their 20-foot luxury whales down Monaco's maddeningly twisted streets: we watched a fat cat in a Humvee attempt a simple left turn (the whole procedure took several minutes as he inched back and forth a dozen times). Forget Fahrvergnügen—this was pure schadenfreude.
In such frustrating traffic, we were glad to have the car, since it took us to neighborhoods we might not have explored on foot (Monaco's absurdly steep hills make walking a drag). There were the quiet residential streets of Beausoleil, high above Monte Carlo, with ocher Belle Époque façades, carved lampposts, and geranium-filled window boxes. The outdoor market in Condamine, with its brilliant flowers and produce, felt more suited to a country village. After Monte Carlo's polish and pretense, the salty air along the wharfs was refreshing.
While other drivers were forced to park in Monaco's countless subterranean garages—sometimes Monaco seems like one big garage with a country on top—we were always able to wedge into a free space on the street. Good thing, too, since finding your way out of those underground lots is a chore.
When we pulled up at the Monte Carlo casino that evening, we expected to cause a mass convulsion of giggles. This last stop was the final test: after all, the Place du Casino is to luxury cars what the runways of Paris and Milan are to supermodels. Crowds gather nightly to watch the Lamborghinis roll in. But what happened instead was a strange reversal: people ignored the Maseratis and flocked around our cute little Cabrio. "Oooh! Regardez la Smaht!" they cried.
We parked next to a Bentley and strolled around the square. Three Americans posed for photographs while leaning on our puny hood. I didn't mind. And when I tapped the remote-control button on my key chain from 20 yards away, even the Bentley chauffeur did a double take as the Cabrio's roof magically slid shut. Very James Bond.
We stayed only 10 minutes inside the casino, which was surprisingly lifeless. The real action was outside on the plaza. I watched a diva with a cheetah-fur parasol stride into the Hôtel de Paris, toting a Pekingese in a matching cheetah-fur doggy cardigan. I wanted to laugh, but her sangfroid made me reconsider. And it struck me that what makes Europeans so indelibly European is their imperviousness to embarrassment.
So we put the top down, revved the engine, and slowly circled the plaza in our little go-kart manqué. And if we looked a little silly, well, we fit right in.
ITINERARY: NICE TO MONTE CARLO
Day 1: From Nice, take the N98 southwest to Cagnes-sur-Mer, and follow D36 north toward Vence. Pick up the D2 to St.-Paul-de-Vence. Follow the D36 and N98 back toward Nice. East of Nice, the N98 becomes the Basse (Lower) Corniche, which you'll take to Èze-Bord-de-Mer and Èze-Village. Day 2: From Èze-Village, descend along the same switchback to Èze-Bord-de-Mer, then set out along the Basse Corniche west to Cap Ferrat. Day 3: From Èze-Bord-de-Mer, follow the Basse Corniche east, passing through Cap d'Ail, until you see signs for Monaco. Stay in the right lane and follow signs for Fontvieille and the Hôtel Columbus.
At press time, Smarts were available for rent in Europe only; prices for Cabrio convertibles start at $67 for the weekend and $148 for the week. Try Avis (www.avisworld.com), National (www.nationalcar.com), Hertz (www.hertz.com), and Europcar (www.europcar.com). All Smarts are two-seaters, with space for two suitcases.
WHERE TO STAY
Château de la Chèvre d'Or Even if you're not staying the night, drop in for dinner at the hotel's Michelin two-starred restaurant overlooking the sea. (Note: Closed Nov. 12-Mar. 6.) Doubles from $260. Rue du Barri, Eze-Village, France; 33-4/92-10-66-66; www.chevredor.com
Hôtel Columbus This sexy boutique hotel is an ode to minimalist cool in over-the-top Monaco. Doubles from $222; 23 Ave. des Papalins, Fontvieille, Monaco; 377/92-05-90-00; www.columbushotels.com
WHERE TO EAT
Café de Turin Dinner for two $60. 5 Place Garibaldi, Nice, France;
33-4/93-62-29-52 BEST VALUE Il Terrazzino Simple, family-style Italian restaurant with a loyal Monegasque clientele. Dinner for two $50. 2 Rue des Iris, Monte Carlo, Monaco; 377/93-50-24-27
MUSEUMS AND SIGHTS
Fondation Maeght St.-Paul-de-Vence, France; 33-4/93-32-81-63; www.fondation-maeght.com
Monte-Carlo Casino Place du Casino, Monte-Carlo, Monaco; 377/92-16-23-00; www.casino-monte-carlo.com