Above are freeways and smog and leaning towers, 4 million people and 1 million cars wedged into a narrow trench between green mountains.

Now, below, is "the great solution for Caracas."

After years of noisy construction and about $1 billion in spending, this raucous city has a sparkling new subway line, so clean and sleek and efficient that Venezuelans seem unsure what to make of it.

The first leg, 4.3 miles running through eight stations from the old downtown west into dense low-income neighborhoods, opened only in January. The president sent off the first train with a speech, of course, and thousands of people--651,598, in fact--poured into the spotless, multilevel stations during the first 10 days to ride the new cars or simply gawk.

This is a Metro worth seeing, proud Venezuelans say. Built by a French contractor, it bears a resemblance to Washington's subway in its escalators and farecards and cloying electronic departure bells. But here there are lovely frills--orange, yellow and blue tiles adorning station walls; immaculate bathrooms of stainless steel; and rainbow racing stripes along the silver trains and on the ties of dozens of station attendants.

Nothing in Caracas compares with this. It is the mark of a big-league city. It is Venezuela's piece of space-age technocracy. Respected journalists even speak of it as a possible factor in the upcoming presidential election.

"There are a lot of subway stations still to be opened this year," one editor said in explaining the advantages the Metro offers for the government's Christian Democratic Party. "And you can be sure that they will be spaced out, and the president will be there to cut the ribbon at every one."

The Metro, you see, is not just a beautiful new national toy. It is also the one thing in this great urban tangle that really seems to work.

They say that Caracas was a charming, even sleepy town until the oil export revenues first started to increase back in the 1950s. Then the people began to pour in from the countryside in search of jobs, and the country's last dictator built a series of long freeways through the narrow east-west valley of the city and into the branching passes to the north and south.

Later the freeways were extended, second decks and overpasses and cloverleafs were added, and glass and concrete office buildings and apartment towers sprang up all along the sides. Now the city seems sliced up by the freeways and towers into isolated pockets of white plaster and red-tile homes, sleek high-rises and depressed commercial strips. The only link is the automobile.

Four times a day--morning, noon, midafternoon and evening--the rush hours come, and the freeways clog with awesome concentrations of Buicks, Pontiacs, Oldsmobiles and Chevrolets, the big American dinosaurs that here still rule.

The city and its services, like the freeways, seem always overwhelmed. The telephones snarl and hiss and frequently fail. The water service is overtaxed and outlying districts are often cut off. Garbage sometimes collects on downtown side streets for days.

Amid all this, the new subway is like a beacon of tranquil order. It glides out of the downtown stations almost soundlessly, surfaces farther west and purrs up an elevated track past long rows of brown-stained concrete apartment projects and precarious hillsides of brick and tin shacks.

Inside, air-conditioned passengers watch out the wide windows, or carefully review the maps and lists of stations operating or soon to be opened. No one speaks loudly or runs or pushes. The atmosphere, on a hot weekday afternoon, is almost reverential.

It is as if such a Metro, in Caracas, could only be a borrowed part of another place.