28 million people visit Paris every year, probably another 28 million people are dreaming of going to Paris. Most people think of romance when they hear or read about Paris. No one thinks of Paris as a driving vacation destination. As a matter of fact, almost all guide books recommend against renting a car in Paris. Traffic is very dense most of the time.
It gets even worse near tourist attractions. Finding parking will not only present a challenge but also instigate an argument among even the most romantic couple.
Paris is also known for being friendly to pedestrian and it has many beautifully sculptured Parisian gardens. Aromatic cafes, restaurants, and boutiques that line the two sides of many streets will keep visitors entertained and forget about how far they have to walk. Additionally, visitors can easily take subway trains, buses, and boats on river Seine to enjoy Paris. So, there is no reason to rent a car. We almost bought into this belief. But then, we learned that we could rent an Audi A1 in Paris from eliterent.com.
Graziella Zanoletti founded Elite Rent-a-Car in Geneva in 1987. As the President of the company she continues to delivers the goal she set 25 years ago; to enable driving enthusiasts to enjoy specialty cars when they travel in various European countries. After learning about her company, I made contact with the local office in Paris and explained my intention; to explore Paris in Audi A1.
A1 is Audi’s answer to the increased metropolis populations and the diminishing reserve of world’s oil. Its dimension, 3.9 meter long and 1.7 meter wide, is not that much bigger than the dimension of two four-seat golf carts put together. At 1150 kg, this car is considered a light weight. Coupled with a 1.4 TFSI 4 cylinder engine and seven-speed S-Tronic, this super-mini ultra-light urban vehicle may have as many exciting things to discover as Paris.
Le Meridien Étoile, Arc de Triomphe, Av. Des Champs Élysées
We stay at Le Meridien Étoile hotel located at the beginning of Le Defense “new” business district that extends to the west. Modern skyscrapers are filling the Le Defense city skyline. We chose this modern contemporary hotel because of its proximity to many tourist attractions in Paris, and more importantly it has an underground parking garage.
Navigating A1 out of the tight and maze-like European underground parking garage is a breeze. Not just because this A1 has an amazing turning radius but also because the navigation system in this A1 has internal maps of most parking buildings in Paris. Even when the car is inside the building, the navigation system can provide turn-by-turn instruction to exit and go to our first waypoint: Arc de Triomphe.
Located just a-stone-throw-away in the southeast direction from the hotel, the 19 th century Arc de Triomphe sits majestically in the middle of one of the busiest roundabouts in Europe, named Pl. Charles de Gaulle. This Napoleonic era monument honors those who fought for France in French Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars. Despite countless effort by artists to photograph or paint this Roman-Arch-of-Titus inspired monument at different times of day or different seasons of the year, one will still have a sense of awe when staring at the intricate carvings on the walls.
Driving in Paris needs a special skill, especially at busy roundabouts. Here, at Charles de Gaulle roundabout, where twelve straight avenues meet, cars enter the roundabout from different directions at high speed. Somehow, miraculously, in this crowded merry-go-round, each car can find its path from the outer most layer of the merry-go-round to the inner most layer, and then back out to exit without a scratch. The traffic at the roundabout can be so dense that, in the past, it sparked a rumor; insurance companies will not cover accidents at this roundabout.
With A1, the task to survive Charles de Gaulle roundabout is not as scary as first thought. The abundant all around visibility from the driver seating position allow my peripheral vision to function at full capacity. The punchy 120 hp motor and the precise steering give the confidence I need to perform evasive maneuvers if required. To my surprise, after surviving this roundabout for the first time, I feel tempted to do it again. So, with no hesitation, I search for alleys to get back to the famous roundabout.
After a few rounds of thrill, we exit the roundabout at Av. Des Champs-Élysées. Many movies and postcards feature the sight of this famous street with the colorful Christmas lights. This neighborhood is known for hosting the most famous international fashion boutiques, such as Louis Vuitton, Dior, Chanel, Fendi, Valentino, Bvlgari, Cartier, Montblanc, and many more. Strutting on Av. Des Champs-Élysées is on many visitors’ and locals’ to do list. For car enthusiasts, Peugeot, Mercedes Benz, Toyota, Renault, and Citroén demonstrate their latest cars and technology advances in impressive high-tech, interactive showrooms.
Le Grand Palais and Alexandre III Bridge
From Av. Des Champs-Élysées, we turn right on to Av. Winston Churchill. Immediately, we are greeted by two palaces standing across from each other: Le Grand Palais and Petit Palais. Both are Art museums. The most notable exterior features of the Le Grand Palais are the arched glass roof, the row of large columns, and ornate stone facades.
Beyond the palaces, this street leads to another popular Paris sight that is often featured in Hollywood romantic and spy movies: Alexandre III Bridge. Golden statues of celestial beings, winged horses, and Art Nouveau lamps adorn the entrances of the bridge. At the far end of the bridge, the golden dome of Les Invalides glows radiantly. Today, Les Invalides complex hosts France military history museums and monuments, hospital, and war veteran retirement home. Additionally, the burial site of Napoleon Bonaparte is located within this complex.
The single span steel arch construction of this bridge was the marvel of 19 th century engineering. It reminds me of the rear torsion beam suspension used in A1. By using torsion beam suspension, Audi manages to keep the back seat space very roomy for a super-mini car. Unlike a coil spring that compresses and expands based on the load, torsion beam twists under load. The rate of twist depends on the length, cross section, shape and material of the beam. On this short ride so far, A1 demonstrates a balanced sporty and comfortable ride.
Instead of crossing the bridge, we turn left onto Cours la Reine heading east along Seine river. After passing Jardin des Tuileries, the most visited public garden in Paris, we turn left onto Pl. du Carrousel. The iconic large glass pyramid of Lourve Museum greets us. This is the most visited museum in the world, housing Da Vinci’s enigmatic Mona Lisa, Venus de Milo statue, and countless and priceless historical paintings and statues. Knowing that we will not be able to absorb many centuries of arts in a month, we keep our focus on A1 driving experience.
Speaking about Arts, Audi A1 has been used as canvas by many artists due to its unique and iconic design. Additionally, A1 offers a much wider range of personalization options than other Audi models. Almost every exterior element - roof, roof arch, decal, wheel, side mirror, and aerodynamic package - can be customized. Inside, many color combinations are available for seat, steering wheel, air vent, ambient lighting, dashboard and door insert. This large variety of personalization gives any A1 owner a chance to be an artist. The most famous art work on A1 by British painter Damien Hirst was sold for $524,000 at 2010 Elton John White Tie and Tiara Charity Ball.
Rue Saint-Honore, Place de L’Hotel de ville
We turn right onto Rue Saint-Honore just north of the museum heading towards Paris downtown. This ancient street was laid out during the Middle Ages. The buildings in this neighborhood are not as old as the street since Paris went through vast urban remodeling in the mid-19 th century. The dilapidating half timber houses were replaced by neo-classical stone buildings which made up most of today’s Paris.
Traffic in downtown area is very much stop and go. This A1 is equipped with the stop-start system that cuts the engine off when stationary for greater fuel efficiency and C02 emission reduction. Additionally, the recuperation system generates electricity during braking. This electricity is stored in the battery to be used during acceleration. Instead of always relying on the alternator to produce electricity, the car can reuse the recouped energy. Because the alternator engages less, less fuel is consumed by the engine.
Downtown area has many nooks and crannies. Locals and visitors come here after hours for dinner as they are so many lively outdoor cafes, jazz bars, and restaurants. French cuisine is famous for its reputation around the world. Thanks to its relatively central location in Western Europe, Paris became the melting pot of many cultures. The delectable flavors of French cuisine come from the fusion of many different diverse gastronomical cultures.
Our memorable culinary fusion delight is cheese yakitori from a hole-in-the-wall French Japanese Bistro. French cheese on bamboo stick is dipped in soy sauce, sake, and cooking wine mixed with a little bit of sugar, ground ginger, garlic, and sesame oil. Then, this interesting combination is barbequed to golden glazy brown. Delicious!
While exploring downtown, one must not miss the Renaissance-architecture Place de L’Hotel de ville. The building features ornate facades, many statues embedded in the exterior walls and on the roof, and tall steep slanted roof with many decorated arched attic windows.
Opera Palais Garnier
From downtown we head northwest towards Opera Palais Garnier. The Baroque and Neo-Renaisance architectures blend of the building embodies the original building purpose very well. Established in 19th century, this building was dedicated to art, luxury, and entertainment.
Opera Palais Garnier neighborhood features many department stores, theaters, galleries, and cafes. It is not only crowded with people rushing to get from one place to another, but also with cars and mini trucks carrying supplies to the businesses here. Because of A1 short wheelbase, MacPherson strut front suspension, low weight, rigid frame, sharp steering, navigating A1 through the labyrinth of narrow and busy streets of Paris is very enjoyable. The sheer joy of pointing the car in a direction and avoiding all obstacles in the way, with evasive maneuvers if necessary, replaces the stress of driving in a hectic environment.
We enter a coordinate somewhere on Rue Bonaparte into the navigation system. We read from a guide book that this neighborhood is whole heartedly the characteristic and allure of Paris. Since we are on the hunt for more labyrinths of narrow streets to get lost, this seems to be a perfect neighborhood to drive around.
Little outdoor cafes are brimming with conversations and laughter in this neighborhood. There are two interesting places for people with sweet tooth to visit on this street. Laduree is famous for its tea Saloon. The colorful arrangement of cakes, pastries, and sweets are salivating. The chic interior of the tea Saloon featuring a tastefully-done Victorian interior design is very inviting.
Another place to visit is Pierre Hermé. This boutique patisserie has a black façade with four colorful small windows. It looks more like a high-end luxury jewelry store than a patisserie from the outside. Inside, the ultra modern interior is accentuated by very colorful biscuits, macaroons, and designer cakes. Laduree and Pierre Hermé macaroons are often considered to be the world best by critics and fans.
Countless difficult turns, narrow streets, and horrendous traffics have challenged us since we started our driving tour around Paris, and yet we are neither tired nor stressed out. Thanks to the A1 world class interior design, adjustable ergonomic sport bucket seats, and the noise reduction material; we can experience beauty, allure, and chaos of Paris from a serene oasis.
Fontaine Saint-Michel and Norte Dame de Paris
We plan to head out of town to Versailles to have a spirited drive in this A1. But before we do that, we drive towards another famous landmark of Paris: Norte-Dame. Just before we reach Norte-Dame, we pass Fountaine Saint-Michel. Dragons spouting water, Marble pillars, and Archangel Michael fighting the Devils make this fountain hard to be missed.
Notre Dame de Paris has a unique architecture. Its flying buttress, the arched exterior support, is the trademark of Norte Dame featured in many postcards. The exterior of this French Gothic architecture is adorned by gargoyles, sculptures, stained glasses, arches, and pointy small towers.
While it has been very fun to drive A1 in its natural habitat, crowded urban setting, we are curious on how this car will play in open roads. We pick Versailles as our next destination. Located about 20 km southwest of Paris, this affluent suburb was a prosperous country village in the 11 th century. Its location, on the way from Paris to Deux and Normandy, brought thriving commerce to the village.
On A13 motorway, the 1.4 TFSI 120 hp 147 lbs ft engine combined with the smooth seven speed S-tronics delivers a grin-invoking rapid acceleration for this ultra light super-mini car. For those who want a more hair-raising acceleration, the S-line and the Black Editions offer the same 1.4 TFSI engine with 182 hp and 184 lbs ft.
Want more? Quattro GmbH makes A1 Quattro Limited Edition. This super-mini monster has Haldex IV all-wheel-drive system and TTS’s rear suspension. The fuel tank has to be redesigned and the spare wheel has to be removed to fit the racing-grade modifications. It uses 2.0 TFSI specially tuned to output 256 hp. The production number is limited to just only 333, and, according to Audi, every single one is already spoken for.
Despite its small size, this regular A1 is confident at high speed and devours bends with precision. It may not be the fastest car on the motorway. However, its agility and quick responses to its driver’s instructions provide its driver the unfair advantages in switchbacks, chicanes, and hairpins. The joy of driving A1 brings back the childhood fond memory of go-kart racing.
Arriving in town, we go directly to The Chateau de Versailles, the principal residence of Louis XIV, XV, and XVI. Thousands of masons, gilders, painters, tapestry weavers, architects, sculptors, decorators, and landscapers throughout centuries poured their passions in making this place one of a kind in the world.
A visit to Paris will not be complete without climbing the most iconic metal structure in Paris. The view of the city from the top on a clear night explains why this city is also known as the city of lights. The spot lights of the river tour boats turn the river bank into daylight. Arc de Triomphe monument glows in yellow with hundreds of headlights circling it. From this vantage point, Paris night life glitters.
Thinking about our days in Paris, we really enjoy its culinary delights, arts, architectures, and fashions. The old and new worlds blend harmoniously here. We also are glad that we have the A1. We can explore a lot more places in shorter time and we can experience Paris in the same way as its residents do. We are not stuck with the tourist bus routine or the rush of catching trains or the hassle of dealing with unfriendly taxi drivers. The dense traffic in downtown doesn’t slow us down. Instead, it gives an opportunity to soak more of the Parisian ambiance. Audi A1 proofs that Paris guide books can be wrong about driving in Paris.