Renting "Minis" and Other Specialty Cars

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Rent a small, funky car of the future--or one from the past on your next European (or Mexican) vacation

The 26-horsepower Trabant, East Germany's pitiful reply to the VW Beetle, was the punch line of endless jokes. Manufactured between 1957 and 1991, the shopping-cart-shaped Trabant shook like a washing machine and didn't even come with a standard gas gauge--drivers used a dipstick under the hood. But in the 15 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Trabant (Trabi, for short) has acquired a cult following. Drive your own four-gear, manual-shift Trabi on a 90-minute tour of Dresden or Berlin with Trabi Safari (trabi-safari.de). Tours are $25 per person with four people in a car.

The tiny car that everyone wanted after seeing The Italian Job--BMW's Mini Cooper--is perfect for the U.K.'s narrow streets and rambling countryside. Mini Rentals (mini-rentals.co.uk), located in the town of Winchester, has models with the cool white racing stripes seen in the movie. Prices range from $49 a day (if rented for more than a week) to $73 a day (if hired for three or fewer days). Minis without the racing stripes are available from other U.K. agencies, including London Car Rentals (lcr.co.uk, $237 for a three-day weekend) and Edinburgh's Eastern BMW (011-44/131-467-1122, from $86 a day). Closer to home, Mini Coopers rent for $100 to $125 a day in spots such as southern California (via Budget Rent-a-Car) and Orlando (Dollar).

The two-seat Smart Car, from DaimlerChrysler, is about as long as the average SUV is wide, which makes parking a breeze. With a three-cylinder turbo engine, the six-speed manual-transmission coupe is powerful enough for highway cruising but still gets 60 miles to the gallon. There's even a cool convertible model. Rates start at $6 a day through the budget car-rental company Sixti (sixti.de), which has more than 40 city and airport locations in Austria, Great Britain, the Czech Republic, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, and Switzerland. And Smart Cars are coming our way: A model is expected to hit the U.S. market in 2006.

Baby boomers, get ready for a big wallop of nostalgia south of the border. Old-fashioned Volkswagen Beetles were manufactured in Mexico until last year, and it's possible to play a lively game of Punch Buggy--using the original model only--almost anywhere in the country. Hertz (hertz.com) still rents old Beetles in Oaxaca, Mexico City, Cancún, and other hot spots for as little as $20 a day. Drivers might have flashbacks from the 1970s when they have to stow their bags under the hood. But beware: The retro thing goes beyond looks. Expect manual transmission, roll-down windows, AM/FM stereo only, and no air-conditioning.

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