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.