What I Did On My Summer Vacation 2008 – Part Cinq

French Flag

Your Average French Car …. Comparing the size of your car to everyday objects – special editions – Picasso and xBox? – that design makes sense from the inside – half as thin as Mercedes sheet metal –

Your average French car is, as you would expect, small, weird, ostensibly underpowered, demonstrably over-designed , space efficient, even more fuel efficient, and work far, far better then your average American would think of at first glance.

The first thing I noticed was how much smaller cars were in France. A two door VW Golf was clearly a mid-sized car in comparison to what else was on the road. You saw a ton of two and four door hatchbacks on the road. As a matter of fact, of the privately owned cars on the street, I would say the biggest majority would be hatchbacks.

Most of them were VW Polos, Honda Fits, and seemingly countless Citroen, Peugeot and Renault city cars. There were so many French cars, that keeping the individual model names or designations straight in my head was next to impossible.

The hatchbacks were, essentially, the bottom end of the food chain, and this brings up the first really odd thing I noticed: There are no small sedans in France.

You know how over here, there are things like Honda Civic sedans, and other cars about that size? Well there aren\’t any in France. It starts out with small city cars & hatchbacks, then there\’s a gap, and then you start seeing things about the size of Audi A6s, VW Passats, and Citroen, Peugeot and Renault \”mid-sized\” sedans.

Right about at this size of vehicle, there are a surprising number and type of minivans running around the streets of France. So surprising in fact, that I\’ll deal with them in and of themselves in a separate article.

Full size cars, things like Mercedes S-Class, big Audis, and the like are rarely seen, maybe about 5% of the car population. And most of these seem to be attached to impressive stone buildings, with drivers waiting at the ready … so all I could think was that they were provided by work or the counselor\’s office for diplomatic needs.

Large sports cars are almost never seen, and if you are trying to make a statement along the lines of \”I\’m rich and powerful, pay attention to me\”, you generally drive some sort of mid to large coupe. Citroen made a very stunning coupe about the size of an A6, but I never saw any badging, so I\’m unsure of the model.

But big coupes are rarities, and most of the cars you\’ll notice are small hatchbacks. One of the more popular, seemingly entry level cars is the Renault TwinGo. Low and squat, they seem to be the minimal answer to a question no one in their right mind would ask. Sure, they get you from point A to B, and they seem to have all the modern conveniences (like airbags), but they\’re tiny and tinny. When I was down south in Frejus I happened on one of the things, parked, on our way back from buying bread for the day (no really). I was carrying the baguettes so it was easy for me to see that the TwinGo was as wide as two baguettes. That\’s about the size of a coffee table.

It\’s not like the French are into practicality overall (if that were the case, they\’d be Germans) , and like many other countries, they have their own versions of \”special edition\” cars.

For example, Citroen has a Minivan-like thing called the Xsara, some of which had \”Picasso\” labeling on the flanks, or maybe that is the name for all of them, it was hard to tell. Also, given that Paloma has been hocking the family name out for quite some time to anyone with enough cash, I wouldn\’t put it past her to sell it to Citroen as a complete model name (she needs to read up on what happened to Halston).

I also saw a Renault (I believe it was a TwinGo) that was labeled as an xBox edition. This one was black (they might come in other colors), but had that xBox green as pinstripes on the body, piping on the seats and used as a highlight color on the dash. Each seat had an xBox logo embossed near the headrests.

This co-branding thing was something I had never seen used on cars in America before (apart from that Levi Gremlin that AMC made), but it wouldn\’t surprise me to see it sometime in the near future.

Somewhat surprisingly, there are SUVs in France – maybe about one in ten cars is an SUV. Almost all of them where VW Touaregs or Porsche Cayennes, and just like in America, they all seemed to be driven by moms with kids.

One time, my wife and I were walking up the Boulevard du Montparnasse
and what should come driving by but a Hummer H2. I mentioned this to our friend Antoine, who immediately replied, \”Was a guy with long black hair and a big nose driving? Was it a big gray Hummer?\”

\”Uh, yeah.\”

\”Oh, that was Pierre Accomplissez-Secousse. He\’s a television star. Everybody thinks he\’s a complete jerk.\”

There\’s more than one Hummer in Paris, sadly, but everyone knows this guy, it would seem.

How would you like that to be you? A city of 4 million people the size of Chicago and you have one of the few Hummers in town and everybody thinks you\’re a jerk

Overall, the design of French cars is puzzling and disorienting to most Americans. When viewed form the curb, the majority of cars seem oddly proportioned, and the details seems haphazard at best. It\’s only when you sit in a French car that they begin to make sense; all those windows that seem strangely placed and shaped turn out to be in just the right spot to do-away with this blind spot or that. A lot of French cars are (seemingly) designed from the inside out. You\’re sitting in one of the things, a great view of the road, ample vision through a tracery of windows, knobs and switches and whatnot right where they should be, and plenty of headroom, shoulder room, a long reach over to the passenger door … and then you get out, and the car seems to be about the size of a refrigerator, and looks like 7 fishbowls stacked on a lumber cart.

\”How can that work?\” you mutter to yourself.

The only real fact I can take away is that Hollywood directors should have all their alien spaceships designed by French car companies.

And it gets even more confusing when you start looking at their cars from an engineering perspective. They\’re still frightfully light and spindly and made out of sheet metal no thicker than a soup can … yet French drivers pound the crap out of them, driving them at fairly high speeds over curbs and the like, and occasionally getting into accidents, and they hold up surprisingly well, crash-wise, for something made out of steel that\’s half as thin as Mercedes sheet metal .

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