What I Did On My Summer Vacation 2008 Part Sept – Minivans of France
No, really, minivans – that size thing again – Don\’t the French have large families? – sure seem cleaner than ours –
In many ways, minivans are the quintessential American vehicle, and, if you and I were being forthright and practical about our vehicle needs, we\’d be driving minivans. Maximum space on the inside, minimum footprint on the outside, room for people, room for things, room for people and things, and reasonably efficient.
But, they lack any sort of fun in the driving department, so most car guys look at them as a necessary evil, like drip pans.
You\’d be surprised to see a minivan outside of the US, and boy, I sure was when I saw my first minivan in Paris during this trip … then I saw another one, then another, and another … and then I realized that about one out of ten cars on the road in Paris and elsewhere was a minivan.
At first it was kind of disturbing, but then I realized that this is the same country that considers Jerry Lewis a comic genius and Mickey Rourke an underappreciated actor of lasting importance.
So yeah, they have minivans in France, and if you start to watch how they\’re used and who uses them, they make sense even in a French setting.
First off, there\’s that size thing. France it really densely packed in. Paris proper is roughly the size of San Francisco (7 by 7 miles) but it has a population of four million (yet somehow it seems like there\’s more room for you on the streets and sidewalks than say New York City or Boston or, well, I was going to say Tokyo, but that would be cheating). So if you\’re put in the position of needing to transport around more than 3 or 4 people, a minivan is going to fit that bill. Also, since a lot of the roads are terrible narrow, a smaller vehicle is much more workable than, say, an Envoy.
There\’s also the family aspect to consider.
The French are, nominally, really Catholic. Per capita, I think they are only second to Italy in Europe, and they come in third or fourth worldwide (I think it goes Italy (where literally over 99% of the population says they\’re Catholic) Mexico, Brazil and then France). And like Italy, they say they\’re Catholic, but they don\’t act vary Catholic (nice girls don\’t dress they way 75% of French women dress, which is another reason why I like France). Sure, sure, lots of churches, and you see lots of priests and nuns running around, but the French are not the most penitent and modest bunch.
They do have a tendency to have large families, even in this day and age, so if you\’re a husband and wife with four kids … the answer is minivan.
What really jumped out at me about French minivans versus American minivans was just how clean the French versions were, and actually, that holds true for all French cars. Very few people living in Paris proper have garages, so cars are parked on the street, on in alleys or crammed into every available space for the night, yet all the cars are really, really clean. You rarely see cars with dents in the bodywork, and since most of the cars are dark colors, you\’d notice the dirt, but they are, for the most part, cleaner then American cars.
That goes for minivans too, which is pretty shocking … because the last time I was in a typical American minivan being used by a family of 6, it look like a McDonalds that had been hit by a tornado. How the French are able to keep theirs clean is a mystery.
Now, you\’d probably surmise that a lot of minivans are going to be Renaults and Citroens, but that\’s actually not the case.
Citroen does make something that\’s minivan-like. I didn\’t get the name, but it looks like a minivan crossed with a toaster crossed with a drain pipe that Toulouse-Lautrec would draw after one too many hits of mescaline.
Renault makes this thing called the Espace that looks like a great family-oriented vehicle. About the size of a Chrysler minivan, you\’d be hard pressed to tell it was French. They\’d probably sell them like crazy if they were to import them into America (assuming they could make them run in a reliable fashion).
But the majority of minivans you see are not of French origin.
First off, you see a fair amount of Chrysler minivans. At first it\’s surprising, but then I remembered that Chrysler has this long standing relationship with Talbot, and has been importing their American cars to France for some time (from what I recall, the French just loved the Viper, which is kind of funny). So you see Caravans here and there; slightly bulbous and fat, but they get the job done.
What you do see a lot of, in the minivan department, is VW products. Makes sense, since they\’re a European product and they did, after all, invent the minivan.
There are three VW vans that you see all over the place. One, the Transporter, we have here in the US badged as the Eurovan. On the streets of Paris it seems huge, like a delivery truck (which they are used for in their non-civilian role), but there are two other, European only vans that are really quite nice.
These would be the Sharan and Touran. VW of America keep talking about wanting to make a minivan for the US market that\’s more in line with Honda\’s and Chrysler\’s products, but they hem and haw around, futz with this concept and that, but never seem to get off the dime. I found this to be really at odds with what I saw in France, because if they were to bring either the Sharan or Touran over here, I\’d bet they couldn\’t keep them in stock. Both of them seat 7, although the last two seats in the smaller Sharan are more of the jump seat variety. The larger Touran is about the size of a Caravan, and about as logical and well laid out as you\’d expect a German product to be. I saw an advertisement for a Touran, and they are going for the equivalent of 29 thousand dollars, which is about what minivans cost over here. They\’ve got airbags and door beams and all that, so I don\’t know what VW\’s problem is, but they must have some reason for not wanting the extra income.
Finally, we come to the weirdest of minivans that I saw, the Mercedes minivan. Yes, I couldn\’t believe it either, but Mercedes, vaunted benchmark of all carmakers, does indeed make a lowly minivan. (See, I think that in America, Mercedes has this rep of being a real top-shelf, high end car maker, but what they really are is a European version of GM, manufacturing everything from SLRs to delivery trucks, it\’s just that all we ever see is the high-end stuff.) The Mercedes minivan is smaller than a Caravan, roughly doorstop shaped and sort of looks like a stretch limo version of the Mercedes A-Class subcompact. I only saw about 4 or 5 total, since they are, after all, Mercedes, and probably pretty damn expensive.
Again, Mercedes is another company, like VW, that talks about making a minivan for the North American market, yet they already have one in use and on the roads in Europe that would make sense here in the US.
It seems that, even in the minivan world, America could be a lot more interesting place if we only had access to what Europeans get to drive.