My theory about visiting a city for the first time is that it's best to try and live like a local. So instead of wandering the Louvre with other tourists, my friend Tim and I decide to spend a day cruising Paris by car.
Not just any car: a rented Smart, the bite-size vehicle made by Micro Compact Car, a subsidiary of DaimlerChrysler, and sold exclusively in Europe. It was the concept of Nicholas Hayek, founder of Swatch—a two-seater for the urban professional. C'est nous.
But where to go?When you're a virgin to Paris, everyone has a restaurant to recommend. Baracane (my parents). De la Mosquée (my friend Lisa). Chez Michel (Pamela, T&L's creative director). And they always ask whether you took their advice, which you didn't. Only William, an expat writer in Paris, veers off the restaurant path. "Try the Bois de Boulogne," he suggests. "Tourists don't get there, and it's beautiful."
"That's where the hookers are!" cries Tim, who studied in Paris. Quel curriculum!
We start at the Avis agency near the Champs-Élysées. I've phoned ahead to request one of the five Smarts—or "les smahts," as the French call them. It is there that we hook up with Jean-Marc, who's photographing this story, and his assistant, Marco.
The people at Avis are as friendly as Parisians behind a counter can be. Tim and I are about to get into the tiny car (think of the smallest car you've ever seen and halve it), when an agent actually comes outside and asks without a smidge of interest if we want to know how to drive it. Pourquoi pas? He points out the remote-control door key, and the ignition, near the gearshift. If you can call it that: to shift, you nudge the stick forward or back; it reverts to first when you stop. Monsieur, there is no clutch.
Before we leave the Avis lot, we coo over the interior. The Smart is cute as a…I'd say bug, but that might confuse the issue. Everything is rounded. The clock, vents, and RPM dial are little eyes popping out of the top of the dash. The rearview mirror reminds me of a potato with a droopy underbelly. The chassis is taller than most, and even though Tim and I are both over six feet, we're far from cramped.
We head down by the river, SkyRadio blasting Cher. Ahead of us, Jean-Marc is hanging outside the passenger window of his VW, taking our picture. It's very Dodi and Diana, and frankly, I don't like the way that story ends.
Jean-Marc and Marco lead us to a restaurant-barge for a café au lait break. Then it's back in the car; Tim and I are off to Versailles. (It's all well and good to say no touristy destinations, but stop-and-start traffic is a drag, even in Paris.) "You will find it easily," says Jean-Marc. "Just take the Périphérique and get off at the exit that says VERSAILLES."
That morning, at the Hôtel Montalembert (I recommend it, even though you won't take my advice), Tim was watching the news, and I was telling him to turn it off. If he hadn't ignored me, we wouldn't have learned that, contrary to rumors, DaimlerChrysler will continue to make the Smart, but at a lower price and with more features.
Why was it even in doubt?Well, if the Smart is known unofficially as the Swatchmobile, it's also been called a "billion-dollar headache." While still in the test-drive stage, Smarts fell over during quick lane changes. More testing, more money. Then customers complained that they were losing control on icy roads. Time for a new computerized skid-control system. DaimlerChrysler's projected sales of 130,000 cars a year dropped to 30,000. That said, the Smart does do well in crash tests, thanks to its rigid steel-cage shell.
I find that last bit vaguely reassuring, since Tim is at the wheel. (I can't drive stick. Let's just say that my dad taught driver's ed, and save the rest for the analyst's couch.) Even if Tim did once park his father's car on train tracks, I'm better off navigating: he also once drove from Minneapolis to Milwaukee, and ended up in Michigan.
It goes without saying that we drive the wrong way on the Périphérique. All the better to see more of Paris, and test out the car. The 600 cc turbocharged engine doesn't offer much pickup, but how much do you need in a city car?It can reach 85 miles per hour, though, and it uses just 4.8 liters of fuel per 100 kilometers (1.27 gallons per 62 miles).
In Versailles, the Smart's size serves us well, as some of the adorable streets are très narrow, and I'm not lying when I say that we park perpendicularly in a parallel parking space (the car is just 8.2 feet long). I'd tell you the name of the restaurant where we had lunch—in a courtyard, with good, hearty food and no tourists—but why?You'll never go. We walk the palace grounds. They're lovely, in case you haven't heard.
But to be honest, the car is more fun. We make a three-point turn that my dad would applaud (the Smart maneuvers on a dime), and head back to the city. We pop into the Bois de Boulogne. Who can resist the chance of seeing a hooker?
Tim has been dreading L'Étoile Charles de Gaulle all day. It's like bumper cars without the bumping. You could stop and have a chat—or, this being Paris, a glass of Bordeaux—with another driver, and it wouldn't be a problem. Earlier, we had asked a local how to handle the city's most chaotic traffic circle. "You have to be the biggest and the smartest," we were told. The name of the car notwithstanding, we're neither. But we're laughing the hardest. We see our exit. "Do I take it?" asks Tim. He knows my answer before I say it, and merrily we go around again.
Avis (800/331-1084) rents Smarts in Paris for $70 a day. Rental in other European cities is subject to availability. You can request a Smart, but there's no guarantee you'll get one.