Not so Smart

I had the occasion in Italy to drive a Smart roadster coupe for a day. I was excited for the opportunity: As a former owner of a Nissan Sentra SE-R, I appreciate good small cars, and I have admired Smarts from afar for years. The thought of renting one (at less than two-thirds the cost of a, well, normal-size car) appealed to me, and after a little cajoling, my wife agreed, and off we went.

Smart is an impressive company in its conception—luxury automaker Mercedes creates a right-sized car for moped-friendly European cities—and its general appeal. Smarts are cute. They fit anywhere (a Fortwo can be parked head-in alongside parallel-parked cars). And, one would hope, the German engineering brought by DaimlerChrysler would make for a sturdy automobile.

Except the car is—how to put this?—a piece of junk.

As a basic disclaimer, let me state again that we rented the roadster, which is Smart’s version of a Testarossa: “a light, puristic car which makes every moment behind the wheel an experience in itself,” according to the Smart website. It had manual steering, a clutchless manumatic, a quick-firing engine and surprisingly fat rear tires.

But that selling statement was all too accurate. The six-speed manual, while fun on the Autostrade, was otherwise difficult to manage. Every gear shift, whether manual or automatic, was accompanied by an odd fluttering noise from either the rear tires or the gears themselves (we never pinpointed the sound). The brake pedal was surprisingly soft, a marked contrast to the peppy gas pedal and rear-mounted engine. The car had a hard time adjusting to Italy’s winding country roads; in automatic mode, the engine often revved to unreasonable levels when encountering small hills. Coupled with the soft brakes, a few hours on the back roads left me with a very sore knee.

This might be acceptable if the car were well made, but it’s not. Our 1000-kilometer-old roadster had wind noise and rattles from all directions. Doors and trunk slammed shut with the clang of metal against metal, not the comfortable thunk found in most new cars. Climbing into and out of the car was just that: climbing. At least the ergonomics in the cabin were good; controls were easy to reach, the seats were comfortable, and open windows provided great air without buffeting, although the low, curving roof limited visibility.

I had fun driving the Smart roadster coupe toward the end of the day, when we hit straight, open lanes and the car could act like itself. The engine was fun to push on gently curving one-lane roads, and on the highway, hitting 130 kph (80 mph) was a breeze—a breeze we heard, thanks to the poor wind deadening noted above. But the rest of the day was tough to handle (pun intended), and at one point the engine’s poor shifting made Amy nauseous.

I came away from the Smart generally disappointed. Its size and nimbleness are fun and particularly useful in Europe; I squeezed into one or two very small parking spaces. We probably would have been more satisfied with the Fortwo, which is a more civilized car that would have been easier to maneuver. But the build quality and poor engine responsiveness turned me off, and I no longer await the Smart’s uncertain entry to the U.S. market.

Mini, I’m all yours. Let’s go for a spin.

Pesci andato

I’m off to Italy on vacation until the 25th, blissfully separated from Internet access. The Ideapad (and any email correspondence) will resume upon my return.

Razor burn

Gillette announced today a five-blade razor that includes a “precision” blade in the back and a second lubricating strip. Consumers like me, still uncertain of the utility of our lubricated Mach 3 blades, are going to be a hard sell.

More deliciously, Gillette has apparently stolen its product concepts from its own parodies: check out The Onion’s Fuck Everything, We’re Doing Five Blades, from February 2004. “What part of this don’t you understand? If two blades is good, and three blades is better, obviously five blades would make us the best fucking razor that ever existed. Put another aloe strip on that fucker, too.” Ouch.

(links courtesy of Jay)

Katrina

A quick sidenote: I have been utterly fascinated (and a lot of other less pleasant verbs) by the goings-on surrounding Hurricane Katrina’s aftermath. I haven’t written much about it at length, but I’ve been logging lots of interesting news and perspective pieces, with snippets of my own commentary, in my del.icio.us news tag.

Here’s to a speedy recovery for all those affected by the storm, and to a winning season for the New Orleans Saints, because to many, sports still equals hope.

Manhattan pharmacies: an update

More from the front on the pharmacy issue: last week I saw two customers at a Duane Reade near my office engage in a lengthy, “nigga”-filled shouting match at the checkout line. Why? Because Duane Reade’s “ONE LINE FOR EACH REGISTER” signs were ignored by a man who waited behind two stations and took the next one that opened, angering the man beside him. (Pharmacies in New York like one line for each register, even though a single snaking line is faster for all involved—another nod to Whole Foods’ intelligence.)

Even worse, the shouting continued for several minutes as the staff watched with smirks and averted glances. A woman from the stock room had to break the squabblers apart after the store manager stood powerless (and amused) by the fight. Topping it off was the cashier, who got into the verbal jousting and threw a very loud “No, you’re the bitch!” at one of the men as he left.

Thank goodness for Gallery Drug.

Also: in June, New York magazine ran an excellent profile of Duane Reade and its philosophies.

Whole Foods

When Whole Foods finally came to New York City, it was an overdue appearance and an instant hit. When the chain opened a store in Union Square, it was an obvious match between purveyor and clientele. But a note of awe must still surround the mind-boggling popularity of the Union Square location.

I stopped in last night to pick up dinner after work and was astounded by the check-out lines. The express line stretched—try and picture this—from the registers through six basic lines, down to single file past the flowers, along the length of the prepackaged foods bin, and down the salad bar to the prepared food counter, where it wrapped back past itself alongside and past the sushi bar. I got on line next to the desserts. Doing some counting to pass the time, I estimated the line to be 85 people long at a minimum, and likely north of 100 when I was able to count the feeder lines close to the register.

Think about that. A hundred people waiting to check out in the express line alone.

Whole Foods did its absolute best in planning for the crowds. The store is split into three levels, with most shopping in the basement and a large percentage of the ground floor given to checkout. Thirty-two cash registers are fully staffed, and two or more guides stand at the head of the queues, directing customers to registers as they become available. Management has expertly monitored buying patterns; during the after-work crunch, for example, 75 percent of the cashiers are processing express orders, and the number of staff guiding customers on line increases to six or more. A Manhattan pharmacy this ain’t.

Despite that, the store runs the risk of being overrun by its own success. Where can it possibly put 100 people waiting to pay? Checkout was remarkably civil and fast: I paid within 10 minutes of getting on line, and I saw no cutting or complaining. What I did see were people doing double-takes at the line and walking out of the store, and a nearly empty salad bar and prepared foods area instead of the usual happy crowds. I know I wouldn’t wait in a line that length to buy a salad and an iced tea.

I doubt Whole Foods can do much to help the situation. My guess is that the local Garden of Eden and Food Emporium will see a nice little uptick as some customers return for their quick shopping needs. Which, to me, is the best result: the more places I can go for my groceries, the better. After all, abundant selection is part of the glory of living in New York.