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Small hatchbacks a more-practical choice for older drivers than old-school luxury sedans

When you’re young and flexible, shoehorning your body into a low-slung sports car is no problem. With aging or when arthritis affects the joints, consumers look for a vehicle that facilitates access and egress. 

Reality of the need for a car interior that’s kind to the body came several years ago when I test-drove a Dodge Viper. It wasn’t the right car for a Baby Boomer with arthritis in the knees, back and neck, and I was relieved to return it. Cars with low-mounted seats, hard seatbacks and taut suspensions create discomfort for those with knee, hip or back pain. 

In the past, the solution to ride comfort was a large sedan with plush, generous-sized seats. Bill Porter, retired General Motors chief designer, who designed mid-‘80s-mid-‘90s Buick Electras, Park Avenues and Rivieras, says supple cushions and seatbacks were key to the popularity of old-school luxury sedans among older drivers. Skin gets thinner and less elastic as a person ages, Porter says, and there’s less insulation between the skin and bones. Seat design and construction have advanced, with a wide range of modern vehicles offering comfort and support.

Seat height critical to comfort

Along with comfortable seats, ease of entry and egress is important for people with arthritis or injury to joints or muscles. Seat height is a critical factor for moving the body in and out of a vehicle. 

“Many older adults find it difficult to squat and move sideways to get into a seat,” reports Greatseniorliving.com. “You may want a vehicle with a low step-in height, a tall roof line and wide-opening doors. Some seniors need to back up to a vehicle, put their rear ends on the seat, and then slide in.”

My father owned a Mercury Grand Marquis, which was among the favorite rides of pre-Baby Boomer generations. He was a large man with crippling arthritis, and believed it was the best car for him.  Just over a decade ago, I had to give him a ride into town, and was concerned about the comfort level he would experience in my subcompact Kia Rio5 hatchback test vehicle. 

He easily slipped into the passenger seat, buckling the seatbelt being his only problem. At the end of the 30-mile round trip, he exited the vehicle without help. Surprisingly, he says it was one of the most comfortable vehicles in which he had been a passenger, and that he’d consider buying one. The Kia’s smooth ride appealed to him, but more importantly the tall seat height was better than his Grand Marquis for accessing the vehicle. 

Soon afterward, I read an article by Denise McCluggage, famed journalist and racecar driver, which supported my father’s experience. She wrote about the convenience of transporting her elderly mother in her mini Suzuki Samurai two-seat SUV, which is far less civilized than the Rio5. McCluggage says the Samurai’s advantage in transporting elderly passengers is its just-right seat height, which provides ease of entry and exit.

  Looks, cargo space, performance add appeal 

Reinforcing the comfort advantages of small wagons/SUVs/hatchbacks for older drivers was my test drive of the 2020 Kia Soul X-Line, which features optimal seat height and others pluses that appeal to Baby Boomers. Unlike drivers from my father’s generation, lumbering sedans with plush interiors aren’t the go-to vehicle for drivers who grew up in the 1960s. We embraced svelte, sporty cars such as Corvettes, Camaros, GTOs and Mustangs. Cool looks and a fun-to-drive character are elements that need to accompany comfort. The stylish off-road-inspired X-Line features rugged black exterior trim and performs nimbly on distinctive 18-inch alloy wheels. 

It has high front seats with a height-adjustable driver seat that can be positioned roughly 27 inches from the pavement to the cushion top. Cloth seats on the test vehicle are supportive with well-bolstered cushions and seatbacks. Front and rear doors open wide for easy entrance and exit, and front legroom is excellent. The boxy design also allows sufficient headroom for tall passengers. 

Another advantage of a squared roofline is practical cargo space. A boasting point to attract older buyers in the heyday of large sedans was the capability of hauling multiple golf bags in the large trunks. Hatchbacks like the Soul accomplish this with a more-compact body that’s easier to park and garage. For 2020, the rear liftgate opening is wider and lower, adding convenience to loading and unloading.

“Urban runabouts” such as the Soul will continue to be marketed to the enormous, profitable youth market, but it’s well known among manufacturers that the subcompacts are on the shopping lists of older consumers. Soul’s price tag, which starts below $20,000, and its 33 miles per gallon fuel economy are pluses for consumers on both ends of the age spectrum.

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