For those old enough to remember Ricardo Montalbán, you’d probably recall him as elegant, urbane, and someone who lived a life of luxury and comfort. He played the role of Mr. Roarke on the TV show Fantasy Island, and was once a pitchman for the Chrysler Cordoba, a luxury car sold in the mid-1970’s.
In the Cordoba commercials, Montalbán emphasized the car’s “soft Corinthian leather” seats. He made viewers believe that a car with Corinthian leather was the ultimate in comfort.
At the risk of bursting your bubble, there is no such thing as “Corinthian leather.” It was a marketing gimmick made up by an ad agency guy to position the Cordoba as a comfortable and luxurious car. The ploy was a success, as Chrysler sold 455,000 units between 1975-1977.
Thankfully, consumers no longer have to fall for Madison Avenue hype. They can go online to find out what options are available and best for them. Would a tech savvy consumer fall for the Corinthian leather schtick these days? Probably not.
So what do we look for when it comes to comfort in a car?
It’s all about the seats
Comfort starts with the seats, because you’re going to spend nearly all of your in-car time in a seat. That potentially could be a lot of hours, and a lot of miles. Add in a bad back, and you could be miserable if you don’t find a vehicle with comfy seats.
“Comfortable” seats differs by driver. Some like firm, tight-fitting seats that provide plenty of lower back support. But tight-fitting seats are confining. Can you and your passengers really sit in tight seats for long periods of time, or will they become painful after a few hours?
At the other end of the spectrum are soft and pillowy seats. These seats are, without a doubt, comfortable - but are they going to give you enough leg and back support during a long trip?
Some vehicles have extended-leg seat positions. What this means is that the driver’s arms and legs are almost fully extended while driving. Extended-leg positions are common in sports cars, although many sedans and SUVs are now being designed this way.
Extended-leg position seats can be great, as long as they can tilt you forward or recline backward to give you the proper angle of support for your back, arms, and neck. Seats that require you to sit too close or far from the wheel with minimal back support can cause fatigue and stress.
Lower back support
Lumbar support can be a lifesaver for a driver. The basic idea is that by using a lever located on the side of the seat, the driver can increase or decrease the amount of pressure in the lower back area. It can help those with back problems, or lower back fatigue that is often associated with a long drive.
You don’t have to spend a lot of money to get lumbar support, as the feature often comes with moderately-priced cars. Higher end cars have support systems that are power-operated. The power systems allow the driver more control over the stiffness of the lower back support, and also control where the support is concentrated - higher or lower on the back.
Your legs and bum are most likely the first areas to give out (or fall asleep) on a long drive. Some luxury model cars offer seats with manually-operated extensions that provide additional leg support. Also available in higher priced models are power-adjustable seat cushions that add extra support and comfort for your bum.
The power of seats
Power seats offer an infinite number of position settings which manual seats cannot. If more than one person drives the vehicle, power seats are especially beneficial, because seat preferences can be pre-programmed. If you’ve ever tried to find your favorite spot with a manual seat, you know that the effort doesn’t always result in success.
If you’re considering power seats, think about heating, ventilation, and massage as additional options. These features will make drives - long or short - much more comfortable.
Extend your test drive
If you have back problems or other parts of your body that ache during long drives, tell your car salesperson you need 20 to 30 minutes behind the wheel to really test out the comfort of a car. Many will accommodate your request. You’re likely going to drive this car every day - it better be comfortable.
Let’s face it, a lot of people claim to be car audio experts when they’re really not. Anyone can shop for a sound system that plays up to 20,000 Hz (about the frequency where humans start to lose hearing), but do you really need a sound system that powerful?
Most vehicle owners are pretty happy with a sound system that works, sounds good to the average ear, and is easy to operate. Syncing the sound system to your smartphone is becoming a must-have for safety and comfort. People don’t want to fiddle with a phone to answer a call while driving.
Newer model cars will allow you to sync your smartphone, operate the system via voice commands, and have USB connections at each seat so passengers can do their own thing without losing power.
If you’re buying a GM car, you have the option of adding wireless internet access, which is also known as GM’s “rolling hotspot.” In all, 30 GM cars and trucks have AT&T 4G LTE connectivity (the same speed that’s on most phones).
The 10 most comfortable cars
In July 2015, Consumer Reports issued a report outlining the ten most comfortable cars.
What these cars have in common are seats that are well-designed, well-insulated cabins that drown out road, wind, and engine noise, and superior suspensions that adjust themselves to varying road conditions. A few of the cars on the list are so quiet that Consumer Reports said it was like “driving down a perfectly smooth highway even when the road you’re on is far from it.”
Here are the top ten most comfortable cars:
- Audi A6 Premium Plus
- Buick LaCross
- Chevrolet Impala 2LTZ
- Chrysler 300 (V6)
- Ford Fusion Titanium
- Lexus ES 350
- Lexus LS 460L • Mercedes E-Class E350
- Mercedes GL-Class GL350
- Mercedes S550
When you’re out shopping for your next vehicle, spend some time checking out the various options, because picking the right combination can improve greatly your driving experience.
And if you’re willing to look at vehicles that were once considered cars for the elderly, you’ll be surprised at how they’ve evolved to meet the needs of today’s drivers.
Finally, what’s the story behind the soft Corinthian leather seats? They were fairly unremarkable in origin. They were made en masse at a factory in Newark, New Jersey.
This article originally appeared on YourMechanic.com as What Does Driving Comfort Mean? and was authored by Kevin Woo.