Back in December, Craftsman invited us to an event showcasing its 2011 lawn and garden equipment lineup. It was right here in New York, because everyone in the city obviously needs a lawn mower and compact cordless chainsaw. Armed with the knowledge that we'd somehow get to demo a bunch of new garden toys, ConsumerSearch editor in chief Christine Frietchen and I pulled on our coats and headed to the studio for Craftsman's presentation. As we approached the door, I found myself wondering how this could possibly be interesting. Then we walked in to find a row of lawn tractors arranged next to an astroturf "test track." Hmm. Interesting.
Naturally, the Fun With Lawn Tractors portion of the dog-and-pony show had to wait. We were first given a tour of Craftsman's other new lawn and garden tools. We're curious to see how some of these will stack up in reviews this season, because some of them seemed pretty cool.
The first things we got to handle were the Craftsman NEXTEC 12-volt Grass Trimmer and Edger (*Est. 80) and 12-volt Articulating and Rotational Hedge Trimmer (*Est. $100). Both are extremely lightweight and easy to handle. Likewise, changing the head position on either one to convert from grass trimmer to edger, or to change the hedge trimming angle, is baby-simple. As you might have guessed, the NEXTEC tools are strictly for lighter duty, but if you have a small grass patch to maintain and basic hedge trimmer needs, they might get the job done. In addition, ther handles look like lightsabers. Craftsman was obviously pandering to my inner geek. Mission accomplished, guys.
Also attractive to me was the Craftsman 79193 4-Cycle Straight Shaft Trimmer (*Est. $270). If you're like me and regularly resisting the urge to go all Pete Townshend on your string trimmer because its pull-starter is flaky, you'll understand why. This particular Craftsman employs what the company calls "Speed Start" tech. That's PR-speak for an electric starter that you plug into the wall and insert into the trimmer. Press a button and it fires up. Beautiful. You can also buy a drill-bit adapter that lets you use your corded or cordless drill to do the same thing. When all else fails, the built in pull-starter is supposed to work without requiring you to undergo rotator cuff surgery afterward. Which is, you know, nice.
With the other equipment out of the way, we finally got to go play with the lawn tractors. Craftsman was showing off its new Turn Tight models (*Est. $1,400 to $2,800). The key selling point on the Turn Tight tractors (say it fast) is that they have an 8-inch turning radius, which lets them cut a lot closer around the various yard obstacles a user is likely to encounter compared with competing tractors. To illustrate this, our minders set Chris and I loose on the astroturf test loop, first on a non-Turn Tight Craftsman model, then on one of the new Turn Tight tractors. After a quick spin around the circuit, we were told to see how close we could get to a mailbox sitting in the middle of the test area.
Listen, it's not like Craftsman was going to set up a demo in which the featured product failed, so the Turn Tight worked as advertised. What stood out was that you really could get up close to the object you're mowing around because when you turn in either direction, the inside front wheel, at full lock, is practically perpendicular to the rest of the machine. With the standard Craftsman tractor, to get the deck to pass over the same close-up areas we had to stop, back up, turn, and repeat. Even then, with the Turn Tight, I got the impression that less manual follow-up trimming would be required.
The last thing we checked out was the new Craftsman Smart Rider rear-engined mower (*Est. $1,000). The rep on hand explained that they felt that "the time was right" to re-introduce a rear-engined model again, since they've maintained a dedicated following even as manufacturers largely abandoned them for a while in favor of the more expensive tractors. We see the Smart Rider's introduction as a direct response to the success Weed Eater has enjoyed with its well-reviewed WE-ONE riding mower (*Est. $750). These rear-engined riders are a nice way to upgrade from your traditional walk-behind mower without having to pony up the really big bucks associated with the best tractors.
As the snow finally melts off and you become re-acclimated with that green stuff that's been hidden under it for months, the new Craftsman products are worth keeping an eye on, especially as they build up a base of quality reviews that'll let us see whether they truly live up to the hype.