When in Rome, do as the Romans—even if one thing they do is race their tiny cars through the streets around the Colosseum with all the intensity of Christians battling the lions inside. Many Americans are understandably intimidated by this sight, but one of the most exhilarating parts of any European trip is immersing oneself in the driving fray. And doesn't it make sense to rent a car appropriate to your surroundings—a Ferrari in Italy, say, or an Aston Martin in England? After all, even in the age of the global car, there is some equivalence between local transportation and local cuisine. If you're going to floor a Porsche for once in your life, there's no place like the autobahn.
Another advantage to renting abroad is trying out cars that aren't available here. Many models arrive in the United States months after they debut in Europe; some never make it at all. Confronted with the increased competition and the cost of adapting cars to American crash and emissions standards, a lot of the European makers who once sold their products here—Alfa Romeo, Renault, Peugeot, Fiat—no longer do.
Here are some ideas for cruising the Continent in style:
The Aston Martin—James Bond's favorite—is a very British indulgence. In London, Eurostyle offers a DB7 Volante, well-padded with Connolly leather and Wilton carpet, for about $750 per day. Eurostyle also rents other luxury and performance cars, from a Lamborghini Diablo to a Bentley Arnage—essentially a gentleman's club on wheels whose turbo V-8 takes it to 60 mph in under six seconds. (A deposit of about $1,100-$7,500 is required.) Blue Chip Car Hire also has Bentleys or Porsche Boxsters (about $900 for a weekend).
For touring the heath-covered moors of the Yorkshire dales, Classic Car Group rents vintage cars of quintessentially British makes, such as Jaguar, MG, Lotus, and Morris Minor. Or perhaps you would prefer a 1985 Bentley in chestnut metallic with magnolia hide trim (about $375 a day).
The late Inspector Morse always drove a Jag, but smaller cars are better for squeezing between hedgerows in the countryside. Try the new Mini, the updated descendant of the hip car driven in the sixties by the likes of Paul McCartney, Peter Sellers, and Mary Quant. (The United States will get the high-end Mini Cooper next spring.)
Keep in mind that driving on the wrong side of the road—especially when going around traffic circles—can take a few days to get used to. (The British will tell you it has to do with knights passing each other so their swords didn't bump, but I don't buy it.)
The way to experience Italy might be in a Lamborghini Diablo for Rome and a Ferrari Modena 360 for Florence—the sort of cars that first-round NFL draft picks treat themselves to. But you don't have to go that far upscale to enjoy the sculptural lines of an Alfa, which also offers more luggage space. The Alfa 156, a lovely and practical car with impeccable form, rents for about $98 a day at Avis or Sixt. On the other hand, Rome is one city where you may not want to drive: A chauffeur-driven Bentley or Mercedes for shopping on Via Veneto is available for about $500 a day from Sixt.
For the autobahns, look for the Mercedes top-of-the-line S-Class, recently listed at 300 marks a day (about $150) from Sixt. The throaty engines are what German engineering's all about, and the S-Class is equipped with every imaginable gadget, including a navigation system. (Have your passenger program it for you, as it's complex and distracting.)
The smallest Mercedes is the clever—yes, even cute—A-Class, which feels surprisingly solid for such a small car. (The next-generation A-Class will possibly come to the United States in 2003.)
Be sure to look into the Smart car, or "Swatchmobile." Developed by DaimlerChrysler and Swatch, it seems to come from somewhere in the future, with changeable body panels arranged around a safety cell structure, and as part of the big promotional push, the Smart is available as a rental. Although not for autobahn trips or families, Smarts are just the thing for scooting through tight European city streets à deux. And they can be parked in half a standard-sized space, or even perpendicular to the curb! Made in France, Smart cars have body colors and patterns that look like sporty Nikes and such interior colors as "bungee red." At dealerships, the cars are stacked seven high in glass towers that look like oversized vending machines.
The frog-eyed Renault Twingo is a national treasure in France, a spiritual successor to the old Citroën 2CV and a favorite of designer Andrée Putman. Navigating the twisty roads of Provence or the Côte d'Azur is fun in a car like this. The good news is that the Twingo gets terrific gas mileage—about 55 mpg. The bad news is that gasoline in Europe costs three to four times what it does in America. Remember to have plenty of change on hand for the frequent tolls on the French superhighways.
Behind the Wheel
The Internet makes choosing and reserving cars easy. You can view the size and equipment of specific models online, as well as track down that car you saw in the movies years ago—the Saab in a Bergman film or the Mini driven by Michael Caine in The Italian Job, for instance. Your American driver's license is accepted throughout Western Europe.
Road Rules Car rentals in Europe tend to be more expensive than in the United States, and of course prices go up during high season. VAT can add up to 20 or 25 percent. • Automatic transmissions are the exception, not the rule, in Europe. When available, they're more expensive. • While many of the formerly unmarked autobahns in Germany now have speed limits due to increasing traffic, the driving experience is still very different. All over Europe, in fact, the attitude toward superhighway driving is far less casual than in the United States. That's why the autobahns work at all, why Mercedes S-Classes zooming at 140 mph can coexist with put-putting econoboxes or Trabants left over from the days of the COMECON. Lane discipline is a serious matter—slower traffic stay right!
Where to Rent Avis, 800-230-4898; www.avis.com • Blue Chip Car Hire, 44-207-278-7833; www.bluechipcars.co.uk • Classic Car Group, 44-194-346-3542; www.classic-car-hire.co.uk • Europe by Car, 800-223-1516; 212-581-3040; www.europebycar.com • Eurostyle, 44-207-624-1313; www.eurostyle.uk.com • Hertz, 800-654-3001; www.hertz.com • Sixt, 49-897-4444-0; www.e-sixt.com.