Sunday, January 27, 2008

Doing the SMART thing?

SMART logo

Company car schemes are good and bad. At their best, they’re convenient and admin-light with car tax, MOT, servicing all someone else’s problem. The flip side is that they’re basically a big hole into which you drop money and have nothing to show for at the end of four years. Oh, and they give you the loan of a car to sweeten the four year payment plan! And standard commercial leases – often for much shorter period – are no better.

The little yellow Mini that has been a joy to drive – and pretty easy to find in airport car parks – celebrated its fourth birthday in early January and on Wednesday I left it back to the workshop so it can be auctioned off.

Now I’m no petrol head, and have no real interest in cars other than I like them to be reliable, hassle free, reasonably comfortable and get me from A to B with as little fuss drama as possible.

So maybe that’s why last Autumn I didn’t quite generate enough enthusiasm to get around to placing an order for a new car to be delivered in January, allowing for the 12-16 week lead time. That, and a moment of wondering whether being a one car family would be possible.

But in the end, I wimped out of the eco-friendly sacrificial ideal and looked at the reallocation list ... cars not yet four years old but left back by people leaving the company that are available for shorter periods until their auction date.

Two choices: a Honda estate or a SMART Roadster. Umm ... a practical family car that’s nearly as long as a bendi-bus – though is still expensive even with the reallocation discount – or a two-seater that’s even more impractical than the Mini Cooper which used to be advertised as the car that can accommodate a strategically folded cow in its boot!

Smart Roadster ... not mine, but pretty like it

Slight snag that the Roadster is a soft top and had been sitting outside unloved and exposed to the November/December elements for about six weeks, resulting in mouldy seats and a general dampness. Dried out and cleaned, it didn’t look too bad when I swapped keys on Wednesday afternoon, though I have had to cook the owner’s manual on the bedroom radiator to dry out the soggy pages.

My first reaction on getting down (very much down) into the Roadster was that someone must have stolen the clutch pedal! It’s advertised as a semi-manual/semi-automatic – which translates to it being an automatic with a handbrake. Not being schooled in driving an automatic, I’ve now retained by left foot to sit still and enjoy the ride, instead of jabbing on the brake pedal. And I’ve learnt to be patient at roundabouts – as you inevitably brake coming up to the give way, the car will start to change down gear, just at the moment you put your foot down to power away ... except the car’s still in-between gears!

Ten minutes into my ownership, there was an awful moment going up the M2 sliproad at Mallusk where the car refused to go any faster than 20mph despite my foot being right down to the floor. Arghh ... I’d knocked on the speed limiter (how was I to know there was one) when I’d turned on the wipers.

And having driven up from Belfast on Friday morning, I arrived at Magee College in Derry to discover my bum was wet. If you sit long enough, the damp still inside the drivers seat rises up and meets your trousers ... might need to keep the seat heaters on for a week or two.

But after the 150 mile round trip to the north west, we’re now on friendly terms. The car stereo is fine in a car park or at low speeds, but the small speakers are drowned out byt he roar of the engine which is just behind the front seats. It has all the attractiveness and styling of a De Lorian – and probably much of the same build quality. (Leaking soft top is a feature, part of its charm rather than a problem that gets fixed.

Our child seat miraculously fits the passenger seat – and meets the safety constraints of being snug, secure and far enough away from the airbags – and I’m growing used to its “smart” automatic headlights and “smart” wipers that come on when the car decides they’re needed. And most of all, I’ve learnt to keep the seat heater on! Though I’m not sure if I’ll ever get used to putting my laptop bag in under the bonnet ... where most cars have their engine!

Better start thinking about what I do in August when this car goes back ...


Anonymous said...

You have a high spec'd roadster there! Auto wipers and daylight sensing lights are an optional extra, as are heated seats, as is the cruise control and speed limiter! The limiter is exceptionally useful, more so than cruise control, but to toggle between the two hold the button in until it beeps.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for the great lesson in why I should never get one! Lots of things we forget to think about when a car is all bright and shiney in a showroom!

Alan in Belfast (Alan Meban) said...

grannymar - note that I've adopted a smart roadster - which are no longer being produced. The normal smart fortwo are a lot more sensible, with better luggage and storage - though still the options of automated manual gearboxes - which is growing on me.

Brabazon said...

I feel I ought to stick up for the old Smarts. They're a great little car once you've managed to adjust your driving style to suit it. If it has the little button on the side of the gear knob, then the trick is to just flick into semi-auto before roundabouts and change down 'manually' in preparation. (Interesting Smart trivia: the fortwo is one of only six cars to warrant a place in the Museum of Modern Art in New York...!)

Unknown said...

You don't even need to push the button on the gear stick, just push the stick backwards and it goes automaticly to manual mode and shifts down one gear. I use this technique when I approach traffic lights or roundabouts because it will be in the right gear when you need to accelerate again.