HOT HATCH MAKES PROTESTS AND PARKING A LITTLE MORE BEARABLE IN THE CITY OF LIGHT
When a friend saw I was in Paris, she posted on Facebook that I had to “drive through Paris in a sports car with the warm wind” in my hair, as the lyrics of Marianne Faithfull’s The Ballad of Lucy Jordan.
It’s a romantic illusion (though hopefully without the not-so-romantic ending of the song), but realistically poor Lucy would be spending most of her time sitting in traffic jams in Paris with the air con on full in her sports car.
I was in Paris for the launch of Citroen’s luxury line, DS, and as I had a few days’ break in the French capital before another car event in Europe, I was given the chance to drive sister company Peugeot’s 308 GT diesel model.
Featuring the company’s 133kW BlueHDi turbo diesel engine combined with a six-speed automatic transmission, the sports hatch had styling from Peugeot’s performance department.
The 308 GT diesel included stop-start technology and provided Euro 6 emissions standard (that sort of information is vital in the Northern Hemisphere), with fuel economy figures of 4l/100km.
The hatch was ideal for the driving I would be doing over a few days; first a visit to Citroen’s museum in Aulnay, north of Paris, taking on busy city roads, then the motorway.
Luckily I had spent the previous days driving the DS range around Paris and nearby Versailles, so had become accustomed to French driving style: every person for themselves.
Packed in the boot of the Peugeot were two suitcases, cabin bags and the gear of our southern France-based photographer.
Even loaded with passengers and gear (now with the rear seats folded down to cope with the equipment), the diesel engine gave me plenty of pep to keep up with the speed on the motorway.
I needed the extra torque when the satnav system gave me a nano-second to make a motorway off-ramp turn, though as I manoeuvered right and swooped around the tight corner, I was impressed with 308’s handling and tight turning circle, though I’m pretty sure my passenger was yelping “sacre bleu” — which was strange, as he was British.
It’s the quick or the dead when it comes to driving around Paris. You learn quickly that there are as many speed cameras as there are pastry shops, so you can’t plant your foot and drive over the speed limit for more than a few seconds as you overtake.
The Peugeot 308 GT diesel. Picture / supplied
Instead, you take a cue from fellow motorway drivers who notice the fixed cameras on the side of the carriageway and tap their brakes.
Once off the motorway , the GT diesel’s sports suspension was put to the test while driving around the cobbled streets near the train station, dropping the photographer at the train station before heading to my AirBnB apartment on the Ile de la Cite (aka the island where Notre Dame is). My satnav said my destination was 10 minutes’ drive away, which gave me plenty of time to find a parking spot for the 4253mm long 308 hatchback.
Except medical staff at the hospital next to Notre Dame were striking — and riot police were closing roads around the protest.
As gridlock spread across the roads, I embraced my inner Paris courier driver and nipped into any gap I could see, again thankful for the 308’s tight turning circle and torque in lower gear.
To cope with the traffic jam, you have to literally drive bumper-to-bumper with the car in front of you if you want to get through traffic lights. With the insurance form I had just signed at the forefront of my mind, I was thankful that the locals were used to such traffic disruptions so didn’t mind a pesky 308 on their tail.
An hour later and a half later — with the AirBnB hostess pacing outside my apartment — I made it the 8km to my destination and voila, there was a car park spot that was big enough for me to fit without playing the Parisian game of bumper cars.
If I thought navigating strike-causing gridlock was stressful enough, the next day provided me with a motoring experience that makes the most confident driver a crying mess — taking on the most infamous and busiest of roundabouts, the Arc de Triomphe.
I had been a passenger in taxis around the arc a number of times and was clued up on it: all insurance is void once you hit the circle; you have to give way to vehicles entering; and there are no lane markings around the famous landmark.
I could do the Arc de Triomphe as a passenger with my eyes open and not screeching (too loudly) but I had decided I couldn’t face it as a driver. My satnav had other ideas, as it took me from my apartment to Peugeot’s head office on avenue de la Grande Armee, just off Arc de Triomphe. Before I knew, it the arc loomed ahead of me and there were no side roads to avoid it.
Instead, while stopped at traffic lights, I turned on the video function of my camera, placed in on the dash of the Peugeot and took a deep breath. (I’d like to include that video on driven.co.nz but the audio is full of expletives.)
I was lucky that a bus on the right lane next to me entered the roundabout so I could use it as a shield. But soon I was pushed into the centre of the circle — and realised, as I saw stopped vehicles, that you could be stuck for days (okay, hours) in this spot while you summon the courage to indicate. I noticed another car daring to head where I needed to go, so I pushed ahead of cars and stuck to its bumper (ignoring my peripheral vision) as we drove out of the Arc de Triomphe.
Handing over the keys of the undented 308 GT a few minutes later to the Peugeot receptionist, my hands were still shaking, but I knew that experience was a triumph for me and the hot hatch.