Thursday, June 14, 2007

Vacation 9: Automotive Supplement

(a 1941 Simca)

I feel I ought to put down a thing or two about cars as well, beyond what I've written elsewhere.

The first thing is the gasoline. There is a different formulation of gas in Europe than in the US, and I noticed the smell of it the minute I got into the jetway at CDG. The gasoline itself smells slightly different, and the exhaust from burning it is similarly different. Once out on the curb, it was absolutely clear that I was not at home. I remember that smell from the first time I was in Europe about 1984, in Germany, and again when I was last in Paris. Also, the Formula One races bring their own gas, which is, of course, a European blend. So I smell it there as well.

(A Ford Ka. This exists as a convertible too.)

(Renault Megane. Very chic. Strange rear window.)

But the gas-burners are a minority here, with most vehicles being diesels. I find the percentages are the same here in Amsterdam as they were in Paris, about 80% diesel. You know from the sound, though they're none of them as clattery as they once were, and from the badges, which say TDI or CDI or something with a "DI" or even just a "D." But you don't know they're diesels by smell. I haven't smelled any characteristic diesel smell this whole trip. So they're all much cleaner-burning than they used to be. I have to think this technology will eventually make its way to our shores. Gas here is about $6 a gallon.

(A BMW 5 Series diesel Wagon. This one was a stick.)

And virtually everybody is driving a stick here. In Paris, I estimated that less than 10% of the cars on the street were automatics, and I walked one stretch along our hotel and counted over 30 cars in a row with sticks--not a single automatic. One even sees sticks and diesels in cars where they are neither available to us in the US. I saw several Dodge Caravans here and in Paris, all of which were diesels, and I saw a Caravan diesel stick today. I've seen several Mercedes E-classes with sticks, both sedans and wagons. We can get an E-class diesel, but not with a stick. And there are several diesel sizes available in the E-class here, as well as in the C-class and the even smaller classes we don't have. I'm often surprised at how ubiquitous the sticks are, being routinely found in every delivery van or work truck, and in even very expensive cars.

The fabulous little Smart ForTwo micro cars are everywhere in Paris, and they're here as well, though not as numerous. They bring a smile to my face every time I see them, as I just don't think you can haul two people side-by-side in a 4-wheeled vehicle and make it smaller than these (though I have a picture of a 2-passenger "car" from Amsterdam which is smaller yet, so I stand corrected). They seem laughable at first viewing, but after a bit their utility begins to sink in. They're probably more efficient than a motorcycle, but they seat two people in expected comfort and with a modicum of protection and all the things you expect in a car: windshield wipers and heaters and radios, etc (air bags, presumably). They wouldn't be a good choice for, say, a 9 hour trip down to Kentucky, but that's not their mandate; they're really designed for transportation in a crowded European city. They're hardly longer than a motorcycle, and they can park in places where nobody ever originally intended a car to park. Many have fabric tops that roll back to become virtually convertible. When you watch someone park one in a spot you're damned sure they can't get into it makes a believer out of you. Especially in Paris, where parking is just about impossible (and it's not much better here in Amsterdam). You can literally get two of them in a regular single-car parking spot. Speaking of which, you need to be a virtuoso parallel parker in both these places, as nose-in or angled-in parking places are almost nonexistent. I watched a couple of young women put their cars deftly into spaces which, in America, we would decide couldn't accommodate them. In one case, the bumpers were touching on both ends, and the other cars' not having their parking brakes on enabled just enough give to accomplish the job. You routinely see parked cars with other vehicles touching both bumpers. How the hell can they get out of there? But they do.

(Makes you realize just how small the original Mini was. But the Smart is much more passenger-friendly.)

(Parks like a motorcycle!)

In both cars and motorcycles, there are a proliferation of attractive models none of which exist in the US market. And almost no American cars are to be found here. Renault and Peugeot both used to sell in the US, but ceased a couple decades ago. Both seem to have a wide variety of very attractive, well-designed vehicles on the French market (at least they appear well-designed to a casual passer-by), from very small cars up to delivery vehicles. Peugeot also builds buses and scooters and bicycles, having their hand firmly in all transportation aspects of French life. And there is Citroen. Their older cars were legendary for their advancement and out-of-the-box thinking (there's a great scene in "Day of the Jackal" where a French ministers' meeting breaks up, and everyone--Prime Minister included--rides off in an identical black, chauffeur-driven Citroen sedan, their rear ends sagging on their trailing-link air suspension as people get in and are whisked off). The modern cars, which seem to be mostly in France, are exquisite. The largest, the C6 or C7, I think, we saw numerous times in Paris, with the driver waiting for his passenger outside some swank place. Certainly they appear to be the luxury-equivalent of, say, a Mercedes or BMW. And then there are a zillion cars from Fiat and Seat and Mercedes and BMW, Volkswagen (in great proliferation of models), Lancia, Alfa-Romeo, Opel, Audi, Nissan, Volvo. Toyotas are everywhere, with many models which aren't in the US. I've seen several Corolla diesel wagons, which seem like a big car here. And Honda has quite a presence here (though less than Toyota), and again, a bunch of unfamiliar models. We saw a couple of Jeep Wranglers, and a few Dodge Caravans and one or two new Chrysler 300Cs. That's it for American cars so far.

As for motorcycles, they seem to favor mid-sized bikes much more than we do, though scooters rule the roads in Paris, numbers-wise. But bikes in the 250-600cc range are everywhere, from the regular manufacturers and some I've not heard of. Everyone customizes their bikes, and tank covers are common, so I'm not always sure what I'm looking at. The BMW GS seems the most popular big bike, and I even saw three Buells (at different times), including a Ulysses, which pulled up next to our first lunch spot along the Seine.

1 comment:

Dzesika said...

Re the Renault Megane ... The odd-shaped rear end of the car was designed purely for safety, originally - it's one of the top-rated Eurocars as far as safety is concerned. The only trouble is, it didn't immediately sell too well, being rather funny-looking and all ... so Renault started up an ad campaign (view here) touting the car's, well, ass. Legend has it this was the sole contributor to the car's popularity ...