October 27, 2013

News & Features

Short order: Tips for finding a car that's the perfect fit

Special to NWautos


Clockwise from top left: The Kia Soul, Ford Flex, Subaru Forester and Volkswagen Tiguan are good options for shorter drivers.

My wife, Mariko, is 5 feet tall. No, the editor did not lop off the inches part. Mariko is as petite as she is intelligent and beautiful. I hope she's reading this.

Shopping for a new vehicle can be a tall order for folks her size. Diminutive drivers can have some difficulty with visibility, seat comfort and even basic things like finding a safe and proper driving position. It's a big deal that average-size drivers might give short shrift to.

Options to consider
    Edmunds.com recently published a list of the year's 10 best cars for short drivers. The list: BMW 3 Series, Honda Accord and CR-V, Kia Soul, Lexus LS 460, Mazda3, Mercedes-Benz S-Class, Subaru Forester, Toyota Sienna and Volkswagen Passat. Since I bring home an awful lot of cars, other vehicles that have worked for my wife include the Chevrolet Cruze and Sonic, Ford Flex, Volkswagen Tiguan and Jetta SportWagen, and Volvo XC70.

Here's what Mariko and I discovered the last time she bought a car. Average- and large-size drivers can benefit from this info as well.

Have a seat
Start with the seat. Crossovers have commanding sightlines, but small drivers need to ask themselves if hoisting themselves up into the chair day after day will become a chore.

Next, check the lower cushion, which has the potential of being too long. Legs should bend 90 degrees at the knees without significant contact between calves and the cushion. Check that the seat belt can be comfortably adjusted, falling midway across your shoulder.

The seat adjustment should have a little more forward movement than needed because people are taller in the morning than at night. It's the same with the lumbar adjustment — there should be too much and too little support at the extremes.

Check whether the seat can be positioned both up and down out of your comfort range, too. All this is particularly helpful when sharing a car. In cases such as this, memory presets can be more valuable than a marriage counselor.

Take the wheel

Next, turn your attention to the steering wheel. Check for both tilt and telescope ability. The National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration recommends that it be no less than 10 inches away from your breastbone. Don't have a tape measure? Just make sure it's a comfortable distance. Arms shouldn't feel crowded or overly extended, especially while taking corners.

Another reason for proper positioning is that steering wheel air bags deploy with significant speed at up to 200 mph. You don't want to be too close to that.

Many modern vehicles have sporty swept-back windshields to improve aerodynamics. Mariko finds that those raked front pillars (known in the auto biz as "A" pillars) severely block her left-side vision. It knocked five cars off her list.

Also, windows have become smaller as the beltline of the door has risen. If the seat cushion is low in relation to the dashboard and door-panel height, smaller drivers can feel as if they're sitting in a bathtub.

Get within reach
Though our teenage children seldom ride with us, Mariko seriously considered a Chrysler Town & Country minivan because of one feature — adjustable pedals. They allowed her a perfect position behind the wheel.

Cars now offer voice command for many features — handy if it's hard to reach buttons on the edge of the console. Some systems are temperamental; make sure it plays nice with your voice.

If you have your heart set on a particular car but find that seating or visibility are compromised, don't short yourself. Shop competitors to see if any of them offer a better driving position.

After weeks of testing cars (some without enough seat adjustment to move forward), Mariko got a Kia Soul. With loads of adjustable features and huge windows, it satisfied her small frame and big personality.


Partner video