Smartest Cars For Seniors

Unlike the makers of Geritol or Depends, automakers never target the senior market with their products. "Bunkie" Knudsen, the man credited with transforming GM's Pontiac division from a tired, dull brand of the 1950s into GM's excitement division during the 1960s is reported to have said, "You can sell an old man a young man's car, but you can't sell a young man an old man's car."

This axiom proved so accurate that nearly every manufacturer AOL approached for this story prefaced their comments by saying, "We don't market cars for old people."

What automakers do market, however, are vehicles engineered with physical characteristics that -- either by design or coincidence -- accommodate individuals with restricted mobility and reduced visual acuity. We find that's important not only for older people, but drivers of all ages.

Seat Height

Specific vehicle characteristics address the physical concerns that naturally occur with aging. There is no pleasure in motoring if it's a struggle to get in and out of the driver's seat.

Larry Smythe is the Principle Engineer of the Nissan Human Engineering Department. He explained that the height of an occupant's hip when seated in a vehicle (called the H-point) is a critical characteristic to be aware of when older drivers evaluate vehicles.

Smythe said, "For someone with limited mobility, they want an H-point that is close to standard chair height. Something not too low so that you fall into it, and not too tall that you have to climb up and then back down. The ideal height is something in between a low sports car and a raised 4x4 truck. Additionally, the door openings should be wide, and the distance of the seat in from the door sill should be minimal." These characteristics make getting in and out much easier.

The University of Michigan's Dr. Alan Dengiz specializes in geriatrics. Dr. Dengiz added, "Hand and grip strength can be a problem for seniors, so something as simple as power seat controls with a height adjustment can make getting comfortable behind the wheel much easier. Manipulating manual seat controls can be tough. I also recommend looking for vehicles with adjustable pedals and a tilt steering column."

Visibility

Drivers of all ages need good outward visibility in order to drive safely and comfortably.

Nissan's Smythe said, "Good visibility comes from having a big greenhouse (glass area), properly positioned roof pillars, and a low belt line. These contribute to helping a driver know where their vehicle is, and being able place it where they want it." Engineers call this situational awareness.

Smythe continued, "A low beltline (the lower edge of the glass area) improves the drivers downward sightlines, making things like parking easier. Forward vision improves when the H-point and the cowl (the base of the windshield) are closer together. And as drivers age, reduced flexibility in the shoulders and neck can restrict how much and comfortably a person can move their head. Having more glass area is a huge help."

Dr. Dengiz pointed added, "Minor strokes and glaucoma can reduce peripheral vision. This makes large rearview mirrors especially important for older drivers. Those with built-in wide-angle lenses are truly helpful."

Lighting

As humans age, our eyes need more light and better contrast to see what going on. Doctors and engineers understand this reality. According to Smythe, "A blue-green light color that measures 505 nanometers is the sweet spot in terms of being easiest to see. You can go a bit to the red side or a bit to the yellow side and keep the clarity, but when you move too far either way, older eyes have a hard time picking up details and glare becomes an issue."

The belief that instruments illuminated or marked in red are easiest to see is a myth. Smythe said, "We study human performance and vision, and also track what the military and auto racing industries are doing in terms of lighting and instrumentation, and blue-green is the way to go, not red."

Electronic Aids

Modern electronics provide older drivers with valuable assistance. Cameras that operate when a vehicle is shifted into reverse provide an obvious benefit. But modern technology offers many more electronic driving aides.

Ford Motor Company's Cross Traffic Alert system can warn drivers of perpendicular traffic as a driver backs out of a parking space. This same radar-based system alerts the driver when a vehicle is driving in their blind spot on highways. (Most manufacturers offer similar blind-spot warning systems.)

Infiniti's Lane Departure Warning and Prevention systems alerts a driver when he drifts toward the edge of his lane. The system then automatically nudges the vehicle back toward the center of the lane.

Many auto manufacturers even offer some type of emergency braking system, including Volvo. Their City Safety system can fully stop a vehicle automatically in some traffic situations.

Picking The Right Vehicle

Nearly every manufacturer that sells vehicles in the US has at least one model that (intentionally or not) successfully accommodates those with sub-par physical flexibility and visibility.

Generally, most mainstream crossovers are top picks, so add your favorite to the ones on our list. Additionally, modern minivans make excellent choices.

Many sedans, especially in the sub-compact and compact classes also tend to be worth a test sitting. Their big greenhouses and upright seating positions give pilots a clear view of the world that is sometimes more restrictive in bigger and/or sportier vehicles. Plus their compact dimensions make them easier to control, especially while parking.

Our recommendations range in price from well under $15,000 to over $80,000, so there's something for everybody, whether you're shopping for yourself, your parents, your grandparents, or someone else you care about.

On the following slides, we tell you our top picks.

Mazda5

Intended to serve the needs of young families, the 2010 Mazda5 is a technically categorized as small minivan. Its modest size makes it easy to maneuver, a plus for old and young drivers alike.

The van's generous greenhouse with narrow roof supports provides nearly unobstructed all-around vision. Small windows at the leading edge of the doors help drivers see what's just ahead of the van when parking.

Important details include large front door openings and fronts seats that are at a comfortable height, especially for shorter drivers. The sliding rear doors require little strength to operate, and the quick access to the rear could be ideal for those who required a cane or walker.

The front-wheel drive Mazda5 comes standard with a sporty verve, although it's not a sports car. The van's 153-horsepower 2.3-liter four-cylinder engine is peppy and easy on gas, achieving 21 mpg city, 27 mpg highway with the optional five-speed automatic transmission. Prices start under $17,000.

Nissan Cube

Funky, fun and functional are apt adjectives for the affordable 2010 Nissan Cube (starting under $14,000). The polarizing asymmetrical design stands out as youthful, but the Cube could still be an excellent choice for many older drivers.

When asked about what vehicles in his company's line that he'd recommend for this article, Nissan engineer Smythe quickly said, "The Cube, definitely. Vision is great, and the upright command and control seating position is excellent." We agree, and also note that the swing-out rear cargo door is easier for many people to use than a hatch.

Like the Mazda5, the small Cube is maneuverable. Its 122 horsepower 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine makes enough of power for around-town driving and the optional continuously variable transmission functions smoothly. Don't expect Ferrari-type performance from this combination, especially on the highway where the Cube's ride gets a little nervous feeling at fast-lane speeds over 75 mph.

Honorable mention: 2010 Kia Soul, a slightly larger, better driver with a conventional hatch.

Range Rover Sport

If your tastes run a little richer than Mazda5 or Cube, consider any vehicle from Land Rover. Part of the Land Rover design DNA includes two key design characteristics, tall greenhouses and low beltlines.

When you put these two characteristics together, you get a vehicle with exceptional outward visibility. From the driver's seat, one can look down over the hood and out the driver's side window to get a clear view of the road and what's right next to the vehicle. Plus, every model sits enough that a driver can see over most traffic.

SUVs like the Sport usually aren't easy to get in and out of because of their high H-point. But many Land Rovers, including the Sport, have the ability to "kneel" on their suspension. This considerably lowers the ride height when the vehicle is parked, making it easy to enter and exit.

Mercedes-Benz R-Class

Another premium choice is the 2010 Mercedes-Benz R-Class. M-B introduced the all-new R-Class in 2006, and our favorite current model is the fuel-efficient, all-wheel-drive 2010 R320 with the clean-diesel engine. The six-cylinder engine provides good power and 18 mpg city, 24 mpg highway.

As for what makes the R-Class good for older drivers, the seating position is higher and the door openings are larger compared to average sedans. This improves ease of entry/exit. Plus outward visibility is better than from a sedan.

Anyone used to the luxury and function of a Mercedes will feel right at home in the R-Class. Trademark M-B features include amply sized gauge-within-gauge instrumentation and familiar controls. Safety-enhancing technologies even include the Attention Assist feature that can sense when a driver is getting drowsy.

Chrysler Town & Country

AOL selected the 2010 Chrysler Town & Country minivan to represent the entirety of the minivan segment. All modern minivans owe something to the formula that Chrysler popularized in the early 1980s.

Beyond their upright seating and excellent visibility, full-size minivans offer low cargo lift-in heights that make loading and unloading as easy as possible. Large sliding doors greatly improve access to the rear seats. A representative from Chrysler explained that their focus group testing includes a range of potential owners, including older drivers. He said, "They tell us that big door openings are a plus, especially in the rear. Also, the power-operated sliding doors, power rear hatch, and power folding third-row seats options are a great help to those with failing hand strength and dexterity."

Honorable Mentions: The all-new 2011 Toyota Sienna and soon-to-be-released 2011 Honda Odyssey promise to further improve and refine best-in-class minivan characteristics.

Ford Flex

The flat-topped Ford Flex is Ford Motor Company's take on what a full-size crossover should look like. The Flex made our list because it satisfies most of our criteria better than other similarly sized vehicles. For example, outward visibility in the Flex is marginally better than the big crossovers from General Motors (Buick Enclave, GMC Acadia, or Chevrolet Traverse).

Additionally, Ford offers Sync. Developed with Microsoft, the standard Sync voice-command system makes it simple to operate cell phones with voice commands to reduce driver distraction. The Sirius Travel Link option is among the easiest to use and full-featured navigation and information systems available. Optional Active Park Assist can even handle parallel parking tasks.

2011 models are likely to offer safety features already available on the Ford Taurus, including the Blind Spot Information System with Cross Traffic Alert and Active cruise control with Collision Warning.

Chevrolet Equinox

The all-new 2010 Chevrolet Equinox is far superior to the 2009 model it replaced. It compares well to the competition, especially in regards to rear-seat room and access to that room. The Chevy's long rear doors open wider than many in-class competitors.

An important aspect to consider when shopping is the design of the instrumentation and controls. Modern vehicle are more complex than ones from 10 or 20 years ago.

Older drivers should not find the Chevy's interior intimidating or confusing. White on black instrumentation is easy to read. Additionally, the audio and climate controls systems utilize simple knobs...just like cars used to. The standard audio system uses an interface that is among the industry's easiest and most intuitive. For example, AM, FM and satellite radio stations can all be accessed from a singe set of presets, eliminating the need to switch bands and then selecting a preset. Simply brilliant.

Additionally, the Equinox comes with a standard trial subscription to OnStar. The services offer valuable peace of mind for the driver and their family.

Toyota Venza

For drivers looking for a car with the room of an SUV, van or crossover, there's the 2010 Toyota Venza. Even though Toyota calls it a crossover, anybody looking at it could just as easily call it a think it was station wagon with a really big cargo area (maximum cargo volume is 87 cubic feet).

An all-new design in 2009, the Venza's interior is optimized for practicality. The instruments are exceptionally easy to read thanks to their large markings and white and blue markings over a black background. Outward visibility is also excellent.

Its two rows of seats accommodate five, and older occupants will appreciate how easy it is to get in and out of the Venza because of its purposefully narrow rocker panels. A power rear hatch is optional.

Subaru Forester

While this funky brand has legions of devoted followers in the Northeast and the Pacific Northwest, there are two key reasons why the 2010 Subaru Forester made our list ... and it's not because of the extra traction and driving security provided by Subaru's standard all-wheel drive or the compact "boxer" 2.5-liter four-cylinder engines.

While popular selling points, the 2010 Forester (totally redesigned for 2009) stands out because of its larger and particularly tall door openings. The super-sized opening-- along with the higher seat height compared to a standard sedan--helps make the Forester especially easy to get in and out of, even for tall drivers.

Additionally, because of Subaru's construction technique, the wagon's doors open and close with an unexpected lightness compared to most other vehicles. This makes opening and shutting the doors easier on older hands.

Nissan Versa

While it is the smallest vehicle Nissan sells in the US (and one of the cheapest overall), the 2010 Versa feels larger than it looks and rides on one of the best-tuned suspensions in Nissan's line (thank Nissan's partner Renault for this).

The Versa's tall greenhouse aids visibility, as does its low beltline and the tiny windows at the bottom front corners of the windshield. The seating position is upright, which engineers point out is more comfortable for older drivers. There is ample room inside and in the trunk (or hatch, depending on body style).

If you're considering the Nissan Versa, know going in that its lowest priced trim level doesn't have the power and safety features older drivers need, including power windows, power door locks, automatic transmission and anti-lock brakes. Upgrade to the basic packages to get the normal convenience options.