Note to self: When driving in a medieval city, be sure to know the height of your car or truck, and in metric measurements.
Dusk is fading into night in Clermont-Ferrand, France, as I pilot a Nissan Navara pickup truck through a maze of narrow streets searching for what I think is Vercingétorix Street. It’s supposed to be where we park for the night’s Airbnb on a family vacation that includes driving from Paris to Barcelona.
Clermont-Ferrand is known for a distinctive Gothic cathedral built entirely from black lava stone, the headquarters of the Michelin tire company and the Gergovie battlefield site where the Gaul leader Vercingétorix defeated Julius Caesar’s soldiers in 52 BC.
FOUND IT! … MAYBE
After multiple wrong turns and a half-block spent driving in the wrong direction, my sister-in-law spots Vercingétorix on the tiniest of signs with an arrow pointing down a ramp. We bite, and it rapidly becomes a disaster. Vercingétorix appears to be an underground parking garage, not a street.
Cars pile behind the Navara as we roll down past a sign that says, “6 meters.” How tall is our truck? Sister-in-law Diane hops into the pickup’s bed and provides depth readings as we inch toward the gate. Diane quickly identifies complications – roof rails and the antenna. The rails eat up about 2 inches of clearance, and we don’t have the tools to remove them. The cars behind may have to back up and out into the street to let us out.
But Diane still wants me to creep forward. I get the hood under the gate before Diane firmly asks me to stop so she can read the situation. The roof rails will clear by a fraction of an inch if the pavement stays even. The antenna won’t make it. Lucky for us, Nissan designers anticipated such jams. It unscrews. We wedge through the entrance, find a parking spot and pray that the exit the next morning won’t be tighter.
That exit turns out to be set at a more accessible angle. We are safely off to tour the walled city of Carcassonne and then to spend several nights in Fitou, a small village located near the Mediterranean coast in the south of France.
A LONE PICKUP
Without stops, the drive from Paris to the coast is a good eight hours, much of it along toll roads. Pickup trucks are a rare sight. They make up about 2 percent of the market, and we see just a handful in a day of driving. And they are purchased far more for utility than for lifestyle. Nissan says about 75 percent of sales are to business customers who need high payload, towing capacity and periodic off-roading capacity.
Europeans don’t share the U.S. love of big vehicles with tons of cargo space. It’s not that they wouldn’t like them. Our vehicles just don’t fit in the parking garages and many of the streets in France, Spain and other countries. They work best in Germany, where there is a robust automotive culture.
Nissan’s Navara is a midsize pickup and one the better-selling trucks in France, holding a 15 percent share of the segment. But pickups made up just 30,000 of the 2.2 million vehicles sold in France last year.
Our model is built in Barcelona and retails for about $40,000 plus about 20 percent in various French taxes. Nissan equips the truck with a 2.3-liter diesel engine that produces up to 190 horsepower. The engine is mated to a seven-speed automatic transmission. There’s plenty of power, and the truck handles well. The cab was comfortable for four adults, helped by its multi-link rear suspension. We stored our luggage in the truck bed.
The truck is in the N-Guard trim and is the best-selling version of the Navara. The styling would fit well in the U.S. The grille, alloy wheels, steps and bumpers all are blacked out. The interior has gray leather seats with yellow stitching. The truck comes with a safety suite that includes automatic emergency braking and a surround-view monitor with four cameras for easy maneuvering. That’s important with Europe’s narrow streets and limited parking.
What’s striking about the Navara is how much better it is than Nissan’s Frontier, the midsize pickup it sells in the U.S. The automaker has not redesigned the Frontier, assembled in Canton, Miss., in 15 years. Nissan says it is working on a new Frontier. It may be a sister to the next Navara but still built in the U.S. Nissan isn’t selling a U.S. Navara to avoid a 25 percent tariff on imported trucks.
SIZE REALLY MATTERS
Note to self: When driving in a medieval city, be sure to know the width of your truck.
Fitou is a hillside village of about 1,000 residents overlooking the Mediterranean. The ruins of a small castle sit atop the crest. Several streets of homes, a handful of shops, some surprisingly good small wineries and Le Toit Vert, a Michelin restaurant, sit below the fortress. It’s quaint and picturesque – and not built for pickup trucks.
We decided to head up the hill, thinking there was a shortcut to a road that would take us through the vineyard-carpeted Languedoc hills. We had a list of multiple castles, medieval abbeys and other historic sites to visit. The street was fine until we had to make a right turn to go over a small bridge. The Navara couldn’t even navigate the corner to get to the bridge. Our only escape route was backing out.
Luckily, this was Fitou and there were no cars behind us to inconvenience. But for the rest of the trip, I was nervous about what was ahead on nearly every turn when we reached other medieval towns such as Carcassonne and Salses-le-Château. It was a relief to get to Spain, where the roads are better, and Barcelona, which is a modern city.
IT’S DIFFERENT THERE
Driving through Europe is enjoyable but not without challenges, even in a tiny car. Figuring out street signs, on-ramps and turnouts labeled in a different language takes longer unless you are fluent. Traffic flows differently. There are more roundabouts. French drivers tend to tailgate.
Be prepared for toll roads, and read up in advance what the best form of payment is. In France, we discovered that you take a ticket when you enter the highway and pay when you exit. It’s essential to find the toll gate with the green downward-pointing arrow. That’s the lane where you pay in cash, credit card and transponder if you have one from the car rental agency. In Spain, there are separate lanes for cash and credit payments. Most of Catalonia’s highways are toll roads.
Parking is another challenge, even in tiny towns such as Fitou. We were there several nights, and I never got within a block of our Airbnb. The truck took up half the roadway when parked. But the friendly residents told me not to worry; they were used to parked vehicle narrowing the clearance along the town’s streets.
SPEED MATTERS, TOO
Note to self: When driving in France, pay careful attention to speed limits.
You don’t see many law enforcement vehicles on the French highways. They don’t need to be there. France has an elaborate network of radar-enforced speed zones. About a week after we returned home I received via email a love letter from the French traffic control authorities. It seems I was going 85 kilometers per hour in an 80 kph zone leaving Chartres, the home of an amazing 13th-century cathedral. They fined me 45 euros, about $50. I paid online.