• Jan 3rd 2014 at 6:00AM
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Analysts say Americans' waistlines may keep us from cho... Analysts say Americans' waistlines may keep us from choosing small cars. (Adam Morath, AOL Autos)
Karen Steelman, a stay-at-home mom from Athens, Ga., has tried to like small cars. She read plenty of reviews, kicked their tires, and has even taken a few test drives.

But none of them made her feel safe. And none of them made her feel comfortable.

When she tested the cars, Steelman had a body mass index of about 37 – seven points above the obesity mark. She's among a growing number of Americans who feel they are too big to comfortably drive a small car.

"I want to be environmentally friendly, but unless I am in an SUV these days ... I find no pleasure or comfort in driving," she said.

Automakers have long tried to figure out how to get Americans to buy smaller cars. But with obesity rates climbing, at least one analyst said there's little point in trying.

Growing waistlines simply prevent a lot of U.S. drivers from feeling comfortable or secure in smaller cars. Unless the entire country goes on a diet, said Dan Cheng, vice president and partner at business consulting firm AT Kearney, we may be destined to keep driving big cars no matter how much a gallon of gas costs in the future.

Cheng said the number of light trucks – a segment of the car market that includes SUVs, minivans, and pickup trucks – has increased steadily since the 1970s. So has the percentage of adults in the U.S. who are classified as obese.

The number of obese people in the U.S. is expected to increase from 40 percent in 2011 to about 43 percent in 2018, Cheng said. Cheng predicted that will keep almost half the population from even considering a small car except for purely economic reasons as small cars tend also to be cheaper than big cars or SUVs.

TOP 5Most Popular SUVs On AOL Autos
Calculating the "real" obesity rate in the U.S. is a little tricky. Cheng's 40 percent rate is at the high end of estimates. The Center for Disease Control said the overall self-reported obesity rate in the U.S. is 26.7 percent, with nine states reporting obesity rates over 30 percent. In any case, the rate is nowhere close to the 15 percent rate the CDC considers to be a healthy obesity rate.

Small cars have made up 22.6 percent of the U.S. car market so far this year. Back in 2008, small car sales made up about 28 percent of the market, back when gas spiked over $4 a gallon.

Smaller cars and alternative fuels are critical to President Obama's plan to reduce the nation's dependence on foreign oil. The President in 2011 promised to cut oil imports by a third by 2025. To do that, the country will have to slash its petroleum use.

Virtually All Cars and SUVs are Becoming Much More Fuel Efficient

Today's SUVs and mid-sized sedans and crossovers are becoming more fuel efficient than their predecessors of a decade ago. But it's smaller cars, which tend to be the most fuel efficient of all because they are smaller and lighter, that are critical to automakers meeting toughening fuel economy standards imposed by Congress.

Automakers have to meet a Congressional mandate to have fleet averages of 35 mpg by 2016.

Some of the most fuel-efficient small vehicles on the road get over 100 mpg, like the 2014 Chevy Spark EV. But that is a teeny tiny car that seems best suited for a herd of clowns, not oversized Americans. The most fuel-efficient pickup truck is the Toyota Tacoma, and it gets 23 mpg, according to the government site fueleconomy.gov.

Ironically, there are a few small cars that are designed to be extra roomy inside making them noteworthy for their interior spaciousness, if not for exceptional fuel economy. The Honda Fit, Nissan Cube and Versa, and Scion xB all have ample space up front, with good headroom and comfortable space for the driver. The Volkswagen Beetle has long been a favorite among large people because of its easy egress and excess headroom.

Of those cars, only the Fit and Versa get above 30 mpg, and only just barely. In order for automakers to reach a 35 mpg fleet average by 2016, automakers need to boost those ratings closer to 40 mpg.

Resources For the Future, a Washington D.C. think-tank that explores environmental and energy issues, said they've found a link between obesity and large vehicle sales, too. They say policies that reduce obesity can also reduce fuel consumption, because smaller people drive smaller cars.

Automakers like Ford are trying to design interiors that keep the bigger population comfortable. Elizabeth Baron, Ford's technical specialist for virtual reality and advanced visualization, said the automaker has recently updated its database of model human sizes to incorporate the growing number of obese adults.

Automakers Looking at Console and Roofline To Make More Room

To keep drivers comfortable, her team focuses on a few key areas: The center console, seat controls on the left, and head room. If the center console is too large, it can press into peoples' bodies. And the storage space in the console can be awkward for larger people to use. Seat controls can also be difficult to reach. Also, because obese drivers sit higher in their seats, they often feel squeezed if the roof line is too low. Automakers also need to be aware of where they place sunroof controls, because those can get in the way.

Robert Dean Cole, from Kenosha, Wis., is 6 foot 7 inches and 240 pounds, and his six-year-old son is nearly 5 feet tall.

"Obviously, little cars are not going to be in our future," he said.

While he'd like to own a car with better gas mileage, he said he can barely fit behind the steering wheel in most of them.

"And even if I could actually fit under the steering wheel of the car my next worry would be surviving a car accident," he said. "Good chance I won't be surviving due to my size."

So he recently purchased a Ford F-150 – one of the biggest vehicles in the U.S. It is also the most popular.

Jake Fisher, senior engineer at Consumer Reports, said it's more that fear of being crushed that keeps most people away from small cars. Fisher has test driven a Fiat 500 for Consumer Reports, and he can fit his entire family in the car comfortably. They've enjoyed using it for around town.

But out on the highway, when they encounter some trucks, being in the small can feel a bit sketchy, he said. "When you drive up next to a Suburban, it's a little intimidating," Fisher said.

Consumer Reports, in fact, last year came out with a list of "Best Cars for Larger Drivers," to spotlight their recommendation to auto companies to redesign seats and seat-belts for reasons of both comfort and safety. The consumer advocacy organization, which tests cars, recommended several cars for their roomy driver position and easy access. AOL Autos editors augmented that list with a few selections and can be seen in the gallery below.

Still, because SUVs have been so popular for so long, many consumers won't consider small cars out of fear they will come up on the short end of a one-on-one collision with one. Also, auto designers say many drivers, especially women, have come to like the elevated, commanding seating positions that come with SUVs. This attitude is especially prevalent in rural markets where pickups and SUVs make up a larger percentage of overall vehicles than in the cities and suburbs.

But the idea that bigger is safer is often not true. Many small cars get as good or better crash ratings than larger vehicles because automakers have engineered many safety features into small cars precisely to make up for their lack of mass in a collision with a larger vehicle. The 2013 Honda Civic got the highest crash test ratings from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety and the four-door Civic has a 4-star crash rating from the Federal government, as listed at www.safecar.gov, better than the Ford F-150 pickup truck, and better than some larger corossovers and SUVs like the Toyota RAV4 (which also got four stars). The Scion TC, built by Toyota and a small car, earned a 5-star rating.

It's important to research each car under consideration for purchase because size of vehicle doesn't always tell the whole safety story. But the vehicle does need to fit in the first place when a customer sits behind the wheel.

Bottom Line

A vehicle needs to fit its occupant, and clever design and engineering can overcome size limitations. As any large person who has test driven cars can attest, the Honda Fit and VW Beetle are roomier for the driver than some larger vehicles like Ford Taurus or Nissan Maxima.

Automakers under pressure to achieve better fuel economy across their lineup may need to give greater consideration to making small cars more comfortable for average Americans. Those that place sleek design over practical will lose customers and consideration.

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    • 1 Second Ago
      • 1 Year Ago
      I'm 6'3", about 325 lbs, and drove a Geo Metro for years. Comfortable, highly willing, 35 MPG, started in -30F temperatures, I drove that thing for 110,000 miles, and would probably still have it if it hadn't cracked on of its three cylinders. It carried me and a passenger and several 6' flat-pack bookcases home from Ikea, all inside the vehicle. The idea that it was "too small" is silly to the point of ludicrous.
      • 7 Months Ago
      My BMI is the same as the woman in the article's, and I'm perfectly comfortable driving my Ford Fiesta. Sorry, you can't blame Americans' taste in cars on their size.
      • 4 Months Ago

      That's why I love my 2012 Passat TDI.  Great size and great mileage.  It's almost as if they designed the NMS for large Americans.  

      • 4 Years Ago
      I've always driven mustangs...good sturdy frame and great mileage. And if you can't fit in any car, you are too fat. Lose weight.
      Karl Zein
      • 4 Months Ago

      This article is such garbage. I'm 6'3" and about 330 pounds, and I don't fit in most small cars because I'm simply too tall. Unless you think my being overweight can somehow cause my head to hit the ceiling of a car, or make my legs not be able to fit under a steering wheel. How about the fact that I can't even get through the doors of a lot of cars? I suppose that's because of my weight too, right?

      Look, I've owned a Ford Taurus. It was far roomier than a Honda Fit could ever dream of. A Beetle and a Fiat 500 however, those have tons of room. I don't know who this Sharon hack is, but she obviously didn't do enough research on the subject.

      • 7 Months Ago
      WOW....REALLY......If your fat and cant fit into a smaller vehicle as mentioned in this story you need to get on a weight lose program and lose the inches. For people who are just naturally big ie. 6'5 240, not a whole lot you can do on that one. Most people in average height 5'2' to 6'0 feet should have no problem fitting into these vehicles. Get your fat A#@es off the couch, lay off the fast food and get a few work outs in and you shouldnt have a problem. Geez really...............There is just no excuse..............
        Karl Zein
        • 4 Months Ago

        And those of us that have legitimate metabolic problems that prevent us from losing weight? Are we also lazy? Hell, I don't eat junk food, and I work out daily. Can you say the same? Doubtful...

          • 2 Months Ago
          @Karl Zein

          Have one of these? http://www.livestrong.com/article/333705-metabolic-disorders-that-prevent-weight-loss/
          Otherwise BS

      • 2 Years Ago
      This is just the latest excuse to justify our wasteful lifestyle. "I can't fit in a small car", try losing some weight! If Jeremy Clarkson can fit comfortably in a Ford Fiesta at 6' 4", then there's no valid excuse you can use. And the whole excuse of "I'll never survive being hit by a tractor trailer" is a myth perpetuated by the auto industry. You won't survive being hit by a tractor trailer in ANY car. An eight thousand pound SUV has no chance against 40 tons. As Americans we're still clinging to this idea that "size=quality". We don't want to spend $15,000 on a Ford Fiesta, but we'll spend $50,000 on an Escalade under the false pretense that it's "safe", when the real reason is you feel insulted at the idea of driving a smaller car, because you'll lose status among your friends.
        Michael Scoffield
        • 2 Months Ago

        I'm European, so I'm naturally inclined toward smaller cars, but you're denying the reality. An Escalade actually is safer than a Fiesta, by a lot. It might not save you from a 40 ton truck, but when it comes to collisions between cars, say with an F-150 or a Camry because those are very popular in America, it would be tons safer than a Fiesta. And it's not just about status. It's more practical, spacious, you want more safety not only for yourself but also your family, it can regularly do mild off-road/dirt/forest roads without falling apart, and lots of other stuff. Don't get me wrong, Fiesta is the more fun choice, but it's not necessarily the most optimal, depending on your personal needs. 

      David Hyland
      • 4 Years Ago
      How depressing - the idea that our economic destiny is controlled by a Mody Mass Index. It's the capstone of competing views of our own citizens.
      • 4 Years Ago
      Coming from a guy who's driven every platform you can think of, from FWD, RWD, AWD, 4WD, 6WD, etc, to some people, it's not ABOUT the size of the vehicle, it's about the drivetrain. Some of us don't want to get stuck in small cars because they are typically front wheel drive. Here. http://www.slate.com/id/2081194/ Enjoy the logic.
      • 4 Years Ago
      So gluttons who consume more than their share of food also consume more than their fair share of gas, resources, vibual range, and highway space, driving costs of everything higher for everyone. Thanks pigs.
        • 4 Years Ago
        Its America, deal with it. I would rather piss you liberal weenies off and be comfortable and safe, then look gay and drive a death trap.
        • 4 Years Ago
        Thier FAIR SHARE............that is so funny...things that we have to pay for do come in shares...shares for those that can afford them. to you we say thanks whiner...what have you EVER contributed?
      • 4 Years Ago
      It is not just obese people. Even at just 6"3" , finding a smaller car with good headroom is a challenge. In addition, I have broad shoulders which excludes some cars, especially with a manual transmission. A car with good gas mileage can be found, but not a tiny car. I have a 2003 VW Passat and it gets about 30 on the road and 22 in town. The compromise is that only a child can sit behind me because I have recline a bit to have sufficient headroom. In 2012 VW will be offering a slightly larger Passat with a Diesel which may get 42 on the road. MPGs and the environment have been a consideration for me for 40 years. I have purchased wagons instead of SUVs. I look forward to a few more options.
      • 4 Years Ago
      Yep... I'm one of the fat ones who doesn't test drive cars I try them on. At 5'10" 265# I just don't fit in most of the econobox drones that manufacturers puke at us like they can't imagine that we might actually be individuals with different needs and different lifestyles. "ride a bike" obviously lives in some metro area and probably thinks three trees in a yard is a forest. I have three acres in a pecan orchard and another 80 acres 125 miles away that is in managed timber. I think I do my part for 'green earth' I comute thirty miles a day and would love to get forty or fifty MPG but my 1995 GMC is paid for and the carbon footprint of a new prius is greater than the expected carbon footprint for the remainder of this trucks expected lifespan. I also deadlift 300# so I ain't all fat
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