Tiny cars saving the planet... but not here

Mercedes Benz A-Class 5-door: Honda Fit size, Mercedes finish.

The ancient amphitheater in Orange was impressive. A visit to the mental asylum in Aix-en-Provence where Vincent van Gogh flourished as a painter was revelatory. Still, half the snapshots I came back with from a week in Southern France were of cars!

What caught this Gizmo Guy's eye were vehicles from Renault, Citroen, Peugeot, Fiat, Honda, Alfa Romeo and Ford that aren't currently available in the U.S., but in some instances may be soon. All won my heart with their stylish looks, ultra-compact dimensions and environmentally considerate, modern mechanics. You can read the in-paper version of this column here.

SMALL IS BETTER: Long used to high fuel prices, narrow streets and tight parking spots, most Europeans have always steered toward smaller cars.

Now there's added incentive. In both France and Great Britain, a so-called "Green Tax" system divides the universe of cars into five types, determined by the amount of carbon dioxide the vehicles throw off.

Buy an ultra-small, efficient vehicle and you will be rewarded with a rebate of up to 1,000 Euros (about $1,400). At the other extreme, you'll be slapped with a penalty tax as high as 2,600 Euros for indulging in a gas-guzzling Toyota Land Cruiser or other clunky "4x4" (aka SUV), which the mayors of Paris and London have threatened to ban from their fair cities.

France also offers trade-in bonuses for clunkers more than 15 years old and a rebate of up to 5,000 Euros for electric vehicles. The annual tax that drivers fork over also is weighted by their vehicle's size/pollution output.

TRUTH AND CONSEQUENCES: So what's been the impact of this tax structure? For the first time in 50-plus years, reported French car magazine Argus, the average car sold in France in 2008 was smaller, lighter, more fuel efficient and less expensive than the typical transporter purchased the year before!

There's clearly a lesson to learn here, though getting U.S. legislators to enact similar regulations - even with a graduated roll out - won't be easy. But just our rising cost of fuel - again looming around $3 despite the recession - may be enough to get American car buyers thinking small and efficient.

DIESEL RULES: One realm where the U.S. has almost caught up with Europe is on diesel fuel, a sea change that could help bring 40-50 miles-per-gallon vehicles to our shores.

While always less thirsty and more durable, diesel-engine vehicles long suffered a bad rep for emitting loud noise and smelly clouds of soot, having sluggish pickup and being hard to start in cold weather.

But the fuel-injected, diesel-powered Opel Zafira MPV (multi-purpose vehicle) that we rented in Avignon was quiet, fume-free and peppy. Just a little initiation was required to master its higher torque at low RPMs and busier, 6-speed manual transmission.

More than 50 percent of the cars sold in Europe are diesels. And at least 80 percent have manual transmissions. The payback with this combo is incredible fuel efficiency. Even our relatively large (yeah, Hertz France saw ze Americans coming) Zafira scored better than 30 mpg.

A TEAM EFFORT: European fuel producers worked hand in hand with automakers so that today's diesel engines and better-refined fuel emit just a 50th of the noxious, cancer-producing sulphur particulates that old-school diesels did. While this thicker fuel is not priced nearly as economically here as it is in France (where diesel costs 20 percent less than gasoline), U.S. diesel is now a whole lot cleaner, too (thank you, government regulators).

So, makers of diesel-engine cars beyond the current crop of Mercedes Benz, BMW, Jeep and Volkswagen are giving serious thought to bringing their highest-efficiency models to our shores.

THE BRANDS MOST LIKELY: Chrysler's recent takeover by Italian carmaker Fiat bodes especially well for the import of the latter's models.

The much-celebrated new Fiat 500 would be a logical place to start. Named after a super-popular ultra-compact that dates back to 1957, this fresh, front-wheel-driver has an appealing retro look and polished finish.

(Memo to U.S. auto sellers: small cars with luxury interiors make buyers feel like they're not investing in a dinkmobile or sacrificing comfort.)

Even before Fiat's buy-in, the car maker's ultra-sporty Alfa Romeo brand was already plotting a return to the U.S. I'm hoping that that will now include the Alfa Romeo MiTo, an aggressively handsome, two-door hatchback that oozes motion even when parked in a garage (where I first spotted one).

Like the smaller Fiat 500, the MiTo (pronounced me-toe) also boasts 50 mpg performance with a diesel engine and manual transmission.

The French brand most likely to make a U.S. comeback is Renault. Roger Penske, the veteran auto racer/car dealer/truck leaser and Smart Car importer who recently bought the Saturn brand, said he's thinking of bringing in some Renault-built models to broaden the Saturn line. And maybe to replace GM's Euro-made Opel compact, currently sold as a Saturn Astra.

The Renault Clio, a five-door hatchback with an interesting bustle rear in snazzy "Initiale" trim, also caught my eye. So did the brand's Twingo GT Turbo, a speed racer that looks big only next to a Smart Car.

Ford is now promising to bring in two attractive and well-reviewed compacts from Europe. Next year, the Ford Fiesta returns in more substantial form. Then, in early 2011, a new-generation Ford Focus arrives, built on a platform shared with the Mazda 3 and Volvo S40.

This Focus has a more aggressive look with a big-mouth grill (also popular these days with Audis, Peugeots and Alfas).

OTHERS I'D LIKE TO SEE: On an arduous wine-tasting expedition to St. Remy, I fell in love with a diesel-powered, five-door (hatchback) version of the Honda Civic that seemed so much cooler than U.S. models. The proud owner took special delight in showing off the flip-up rear seats and deep trunk. (The car comes with run-flat tires, eliminating the need for a spare.)

Popular throughout Europe and Asia, the three- and five-door Mercedes Benz A-Class mini-wagons offer the proportions of a Honda Fit with the look and finish of the famous German brand.

For getting your bod in and out of tight parking spots, nothing beats the Peugeot 1007, a square, verging on van-shaped compact sedan with sliding doors.

And, like its iconic predecessor, the 2CV, the Citroen Pluriel makes a happy-go-lucky, ultra-French statement with its two-tone paint job, swoopy roof line and roll-back soft top, offering convertible charm at a budget-car price.

C'est magnifique! *