You start a Chevy man, work up to an Oldsmobile, snag a managerial title and a Buick, and after putting in your 40 years, retire with a Cadillac. A Caddy in the driveway is the capstone to the greatest American generation's definition of the American dream. Those pre-HMO years were times of strong unions and reliable retirement plans.
Now, though, according to the Administration on Aging, over a quarter of seniors reported less than $10,000 in income in 2004, with a median income of just over $15,000. Seniors have seen pension funds looted or crumble and are left to battle an ailing Social Security system and prescription drug costs unrivaled the world over. Goodbye, retirement, golden years, and chromed metal grille; hello, Mr. Part-Time-with-No-Benefits Wal-Mart greeter and plastic-chromed econobox.
First-time car buyers and last-time car buyers half a century older are quite often shopping in the same market: the cheapest cars money can buy. Think rental-fleet fare -- small, simple, and crude.
Teenagers and seniors share another dubious distinction: They are the two age groups most likely to get into accidents. Part and parcel to the aging process is a decrease in visual acuity, especially depth perception, and an increase in reaction times, as well as bone-density decreases as the years pile up, meaning elderly people break easier. Vehicle safety is therefore paramount, as are ease of ingress and egress and vehicle maneuverability.
There are still enough moneyed retirees to support the luxo-barge market, men and women who remember Treblinka and Pearl Harbor and would rather ride their Lawn-Boy into town than helm a German or Japanese vehicle; but the world is changing even for those who changed it, and many folks are having to reconsider their transportation choices.
Ford Crown Victoria
What says retired more than a Ford Crown Victoria? You're right, a Mercury Grand Marquis with a parcel tray full of Beanie Babies, but the Vic is cheaper. The Crown Victoria is conjured from a platform introduced in 1979 and updated in 1998, including supposed "chassis improvements," which probably meant upgrading the hardware that holds the solid axle in place from square nails to nuts and bolts. For 2008, the Crown Vic is offered only to fleet customers, so unless you can pass a motion at the next bridge-club meeting and buy as a group, forget about it.
Despite Tiger Woods's assurance that dashing young sports stars drive Buicks, all most buyers know about hip is the pain of replacement surgery. Buick is tasked with erasing from our collective memory a decade of skippering loathsome rental Centurys. Enter the portholed Lucerne, a car removed from the atrocities of decades past that painted the marque as one to avoid like Chinese toothpaste, but far enough removed? The Lucerne is bigger than the Chrysler 300, has an optional V-8, and offers heated and cooled front bucket seats -- all the better for flare-ups -- but it's still an outdated front-driver that's about as engaging as The Price Is Right would have been with Rosie at the helm.
Lincoln Town Car
According to Lincoln, the Town Car was the first vehicle to receive five-star crash ratings in all five categories from NHTSA. Despite being the most expensive luxury car sold by Ford, with a starting price of $43,045, it's the least expensive in the segment. It remains the favorite of limousine manufacturers as its body-on-frame construction makes it the easiest to stretch, and small-block Ford parts are cheap. The Town Car doesn't offer European levels of sophistication, fit, or performance, and it doesn't try to. But it rides better than a Barcalounger, is flecked with judicious quantities of chrome, and can swallow enough golf clubs to supply the tour or enough bodies to ensure an acquittal.
Available in sedan or five-door-hatchback form, the Nissan Versa is the least-expensive vehicle on this list, starting at just over $13,000. Considering the price point, the abundant standard equipment -- including curtain airbags and a well-styled interior -- is above average. A 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine mated to an optional set-it-and-forget-it continuously variable transmission returns a Social Security check-pinching 35 mpg on the highway.
The Versa is tall for its size, which means those with less-than-limber bodies who employ the "collapse laterally into seat" entry technique are less likely to knock their noggins here than they might in other subcompacts. And unlike many cars in this segment, in addition to a comfortable ride, the Versa features rear seats that will comfortably transport additional octogenarians. Choose the hatchback model, and you can easily haul collapsible wheelchairs, bowling balls, or, for Xtreme grannies, rappelling gear.
Three years ago we would have slid your AARP-card-carrying body into a Honda Accord or Toyota Camry. For the money, however, those two don't quite slice the Jell-O casserole anymore. For thousands of dollars less than its Japanese competitors, the Sonata offers V-6 power, elegant styling, an upmarket interior, and an unmatched host of standard safety items. There's room for the grandkids, room for golf bags in the trunk, and room left over in the budget for road trips. And as proven by a recent arrestee in a rental V-6 Sonata, it can top 146 miles per hour, useful for chasing down lawn-ornament-nabbing hoodlums.
If you just have to drive American, try one of these. What the Hyundai Sonata does well for $24,000, the 2008 Malibu should do almost as well for about $20,000. If the previous Malibu was a heretical rebirth of the nameplate, this one makes a few quick moves back toward its slightly sporting heritage. And as affordable, comfortable transportation, it does well. Getting the Malibu right is imperative for GM, which plans to sell at least 200,000 of them per year. For about $20,000, Nana can purchase a four-cylinder model that benefits from a pleasant interior and standard front, side, and curtain airbags.
Although the excuses for actually needing an SUV arguably diminish with the accretion of years, there are certainly seniors for whom all-wheel drive is a plus and for whom a higher step-in height makes for easier ingress and egress. The RAV4 strikes a happy compromise between SUV stature and carlike demeanor. Think of it as a Camry in the sky with inoffensive lines and surprisingly good driving habits. Examples start at $21,785 with two-wheel drive and a four-cylinder engine. Fun models come with a big 269-hp V-6 and four-wheel drive, which combine for a quite surprising 0-to-60 sprint of 6.3 seconds. Rejoice in crushing lane-contesting rascals.
For retired execs who followed Corleone out of Carter-era Lincolns and Caddys and into 500SELs, here's a Cadillac to lure you home. Although it's available with a V-6 or V-8 and rear- or all-wheel drive, we suggest you celebrate a rather rare American triumph of combustive engineering and pick the V-6 model. With a race-car compression ratio and variable intake- and exhaust-valve timing, Cadillac extracts 302 horsepower from just 3.6 liters and six cylinders, enough to spirit the STS to 60 mph in 6.2 seconds. Step up to the handling package, and get a stiffer suspension, performance wheels and tires, Brembo brakes, and a recalibrated steering system. Turn off traction control, and show them whippersnappers how drifting is done.
Zhejiang Kingwell KWES-01
There will come the moment when the DMV deems most of us unfit to drive, perhaps because we failed the vision test, perhaps because we made our own drive-thru window at the Stop 'n' Shop. Fear not the ignominious fate of a li'l Rascal, whose commercials suggest a package deal with dentures and helmet hair: Your Zhejiang Kingwell KWES-01 electric four-wheeler awaits! Let's face it: Electric scooters are as sexy as colostomy bags and golf carts as practical as five-inch stilettos. Terrorize the paths at the Amaranthine Oaks Retirement Community with 18 mph of upright, sporty action.
The Hot Rod
Take your pick: '34 coupe, '41 Willys, or '32 roadster, or "custom" fiberglass-bodied hot rod teeming with every rolling cliché possible. Choose either House of Kolors Kandy Yellow or PPG Sunset Red and add pearl ghost flames. Make sure the wheels, steering wheel, gauge surrounds, and shift knob are billet aluminum; bonus points for a billet codpiece. Interior: tweed. Transmission: automatic. Wear T-shirts from hot-rod meets you've never been to and pop the hood to show off your box-stock 350 small-block with all the money blown on chrome, not compression.