For countryfolk without driver's licenses and chic Parisian teens who don't want to be chauffeured by their parents, a tiny new car is proving a boon.
At first sight, it's as cute as a bug and not much bigger. The two-seat Microcar can't be very large in order to stay under the weight and speed limits set for "voiturettes" and "quadricycles."Owners don't seem to mind that it's like riding atop a lawnmower. They like the legal loophole: You don't need a driver's license for "micros" in several European countries.
Sales of the micros also benefit from European gasoline prices that can top $4 a gallon.
Microcar and eight other "micro" producers in France and Italy expect to sell 25,000 vehicles this year, up from about 16,000 in 1997.
At the assembly plant in Les Herbiers, a village outside Nantes in western France, lines of red, blue, gray and green Microcars hang from a yellow overhead conveyor belt that cranks out about 30 a day.
A well-heeled subsidiary of the pleasure boating giant Jeanneau - bought out in 1995 by another yachting giant, Beneteau - Microcar glues together a featherweight body from nine pieces of reinforced polyester, using parts from regular automakers. Voiturettes are limited to a maximum weight of 770 pounds.
The Yamaha diesel engine powers the car up to 27 mph and gets about 68 miles a gallon.
The micros aren't much cheaper than some of their slightly larger competitors - minicars like the Rover 100, Renault Twingo and Fiat Cinquecento. Microcar's sticker price starts at about 50,000 francs ($8,300).
But the edge is you don't need a license. Anyone 16 and older can drive them.
"I'm 16, and it's changed my life," says Emmanuelle Bousquet, whose family lives in the upscale western Paris suburb of Boulogne. "I don't have to depend on taxis, buses, the subway, my parents."
Outside Orleans in the Loire Valley, Jacqueline Bourgeot has been driving micros since 1984. As an epileptic, she can't get a license.