September 15, 2013

News & Features

Bottom line: Auto seating is a tall (and short) order

Special to NWautos

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Seats such as these in a Toyota Camry are designed to fit drivers big and small. (Toyota)

Pull up a chair and let's talk about automotive seating. Of all the things people take for granted in a car, seats are probably the least appreciated. More than just a comfy place to park your backside, seats can improve safety, help drivers perform better, increase fuel efficiency and even help to sell the vehicle. There are ways to tell if a seat is right for you.

Let's get to the bottom of it all (pun fully intended).

Varying features

According to Eric Michalak, chief engineer for Automotive Seating at Johnson Controls (the world's largest automotive seating supplier), simple front seats have about 200 parts. Add features and that number can climb to 700.

A single Johnson Controls seat can have 70 variations when features and fabrics are considered. Each has 1,700 to 3,000 requirements, including mandated government specs, style, comfort and features.

Seats must accommodate both very large and very small people, a black art of the tallest order. That's easier in more expensive cars, whose seats have adjustable cushion length and lumbar support, but those in budget models don't have that luxury.

Saving lives

For safety, reinforced seat frames keep occupants positioned correctly so air bags can protect properly and precisely. Seat backs are designed not to fold during rear collisions, and modern headrests greatly reduce whiplash.

Nissan wanted fully flexible and removable seating for its NV passenger van, but engineers encountered a major development issue — the seat belts couldn't be attached to the upper frame of the vehicle; they had to be built into the seats.

According to Peter Bedrosian, Nissan senior product manager, "The floor pan, mounting latches and seat structure had to be reinforced to survive the force of an adult male during a severe crash."

Making the sale

Buyers are first drawn to a car's exterior design. Open the door and the seats must continue the sale. "It has to look appealing and [like] part of the car," says John Davis, a chief engineer for Ford. "It's the largest single item in the cabin, and must appear integrated with the design of the whole vehicle. But buyers will skip the test drive if style elements make the chair uncomfortable."

Doug Scott, truck marketing manager for Ford, says that extra development time is spent on comfort. "For many F-150 owners, it's not just transportation," he says. "It's an office, even a lunchroom. People spend a lot of time in them."

Going high-tech

There's more seat technology than just heat and ventilation nowadays. Cadillac cushions vibrate if electronics sense that drivers are drifting from their lane or approaching other cars too rapidly. Mercedes-Benz has bolsters that react to steering wheel inputs. Turn right and the left one immediately moves in to keep drivers properly positioned, eliminating uncomfortably narrow bolsters.

Unfortunately, features mean weight, a sitting enemy to fuel economy. Manufacturers Johnson Controls and Lear have turned to exotic materials to keep seats light without sacrificing comfort or safety. But there's only so far engineers can go before automakers bench a seat because of price and drivers squawk about comfort. In some vehicles, the cost of seating is second only to the engine.

Ensuring comfort

Johnson Controls' Michalak says to look at the features that add up to comfort. Make sure the lower cushion is the right length, because it supports 60 percent of a body's weight. Side bolsters should gently hold a driver in position during cornering and should not be overly loose or restrictive.

Those with back problems should crank the lumbar adjustments to check both extreme positions. A good seat should be able to provide too much and too little support. It's the same for long travels. Your body shrinks a little throughout the day, so that extra bit of adjustment can make a difference.

In the end, a comfortable driver is a better driver.

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