10 top cars for older drivers

Older drivers face many unique challenges, starting with the problem of simply getting in and out of a car and adjusting the driver’s seat once they get there.

Those may sound like trivial criteria in choosing a particular car — as opposed to more typical concerns like horsepower or gas mileage — but air bags make the proper seating position a matter of life and death.

Drivers sitting too close to the steering wheel-mounted air bag can be injured or even killed if the air bag goes off in a collision, according to the American Automobile Association, or AAA. It recommends sitting at least 10 inches away from the air bag.

Some shorter drivers — a category that includes many women as well as older drivers — have a problem doing that because they can’t reach the pedals if they sit that far away from the steering wheel. A growing number of cars have power-adjustable pedals for that reason.

Catering to older drivers is important. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, there will be more than 40 million U.S. drivers age 65 and older by 2020, up from 29 million in 2005.

Accordingly, the AAA, working with the University of Florida’s National Older Driver Research and Training Center, has come up with a list of “Smart Features for Mature Drivers.”

Many of those features focus on easy access and to the ability to adjust the seats, mirrors, and the gas and brake pedals.

Crossover vehicles, which are higher than most cars but lower than most SUVs, score well on the AAA list because it’s easier for older drivers to slip in and out of the driver’s seat without having to climb a stepladder or lower themselves into a hole.

The AAA, AARP and the American Occupational Therapy Association also co-sponsor a program called CarFit, which coaches older drivers how to adjust their seating position.

Eager to avoid being labeled an “old person’s car,” the car companies stress that features that make cars attractive to older people — like buttons and controls that are easy to reach, simple and legible — are attractive for everyone.

Here are our picks of 10 of the best cars when it comes to having features that appeal to older drivers:

10 best cars for older drivers
1. BMW 7 Series 6. Hyundai Veracruz
2. Cadillac SRX 7. Mercedes-Benz E-Class
3. Chrysler 300 8. Nissan Cube
4. Ford Taurus 9. Toyota RAV-4
5. Honda Odyssey 10. Volvo XC60

BMW 7 Series

Body style: Sedan
Starting price: $81,125
Feature for older drivers: Night Vision

Night vision is consistently one of the first problem areas for aging drivers, according to traffic safety experts. BMW offers a high-tech night vision system on some of its upscale models that can see in the dark using an infrared camera that detects and displays warm objects like pedestrians or deer. The BMW system is a $2,600 option on the 750i and 750Li sedans.

Cadillac SRX

Body style: Crossover
Starting price: $41,235
Feature for older drivers: Easy access

The 2010 Cadillac SRX is a redesigned model. The AAA says crossovers are good for older drivers because the easiest seat height for them is around hip level. Like other crossovers, the SRX is built on a car-like platform that’s welded into a single piece. A traditional truck consists of a body bolted on a ladder-like frame. It’s sturdier, but rides rougher. The SRX also comes with GM’s OnStar system that automatically notifies emergency workers if an air bag goes off in an accident.

Chrysler 300

Body style: Sedan
Starting price: $27,665
Feature for older drivers: Power-adjustable pedals

The Chrysler 300 has nearly all the “Smart Features for Mature Drivers” recommended by the AAA, including power-adjustable pedals as an option on the entry-level model, which are standard on better-equipped versions. Adjustable pedals and a telescoping steering wheel can prevent injuries, by keeping a shorter driver from sitting too close to the air bag in the steering-wheel hub.

Ford Taurus

Body style: Sedan
Starting price: $25,995
Feature for older drivers: Supportive seats

The 2010 Ford Taurus is an all-new model. According to Ford, the standard seats are designed to be soft to the touch while providing extra back support to reduce fatigue and back pain on a long drive. Ford said it also designed optional “Multi-Contour Seats with Active Motion” based on medical research. A $595 option on more upscale versions of the Taurus provides a “rolling pattern” massage on the seat to keep you from sitting in the exact same position for too long.

Honda Odyssey

Body style: MinivanStarting price: $27,515
Feature for older drivers: Tilt-telescope steering wheel

Older drivers who shuttling kids around often will enjoy the Honda Odyssey. This minivan also includes a tilt/telescoping steering wheel. Tilting steering wheels are common on mass-market cars, but telescoping ones are relatively scarce, according to the AAA. The Honda Odyssey is the nation’s best-selling minivan in 2009, according to AutoData Corp.

Hyundai Veracruz

Body style:Crossover
Starting price: $27,895
Feature for older drivers: Keyless entry

The Hyundai Veracruz crossover was the only vehicle out of 120 rated last year by the AAA that had every one of the AAA’s “Smart Features for Mature Drivers,” including push-button keyless entry, which is easier for arthritic hands to operate. The Veracruz also has adjustable pedals, a safety feature that was available on only 23 vehicles out of 120.

Mercedes-Benz E-Class

Body style: SedanStarting price:$49,475
Feature for older drivers: Drowsy-driving alarm

The all-new Mercedes-Benz E-Class gets a drowsy-driving alarm the company calls “Attention Assist” as standard equipment. Sensors detect small steering corrections associated with the early stages of drowsy driving. The system sounds an alarm and flashes a symbol that represents, appropriately enough, a cup of coffee. Statistically, drivers under age 25 account for more than half of sleep-related crashes, according to Mercedes-Benz. However, “At one time or another, fatigue will affect all drivers,” the company said.

Nissan Cube

Body style: CrossoverStarting price: $14,710
Feature for older drivers: Electronic stability control

The Nissan Cube targets younger buyers, but it could be a hit with older drivers, too, like its rival, the Scion xB from Toyota. The Nissan Cube is affordable, functional and cute, and it also has many sophisticated safety systems that once were exclusive to luxury cars, like electronic stability control. The system can tell if the car is headed in a direction other than where the steering wheel is pointed. If that’s the case, the system applies braking to one or more wheels, to prevent or reduce a skid. Without the automatic system, even the most skilled driver can’t apply brakes to a single wheel by stepping on the brakes. The Nissan Cube also has four doors and a low sill, for easy access.

Toyota RAV-4

Body style: CrossoverStarting price: $22,300
Feature for older drivers: Controls are easy to read and operate

Most people would call the Toyota RAV-4 a small SUV, but because it’s a crossover based on the Toyota Camry, the RAV-4 is low and easy to get into by SUV standards. Toyota gets good marks from the AAA for easy-to-use controls for the audio and climate control, plus a thick steering wheel that’s easy to grip. Toyota also keeps its knobs and controls similar among its models and among its brands, so that unlike some other automakers, you can go from a Scion to a Toyota to a Lexus without having to re-learn the basic controls.

Volvo XC60

Body style: CrossoverStarting price: $33,245
Feature for older drivers: Collision-avoidance system

The Volvo XC60 is an all-new model with one of Volvo’s latest safety innovations, which automatically applies the brakes and can even stop the car if the driver fails to respond to a potential collision. The so-called City Safety system uses a laser to detect a rapidly shrinking closing distance to a car or an object ahead. The system first sounds a warning, and then starts to apply the brakes if the driver doesn’t respond in time. The system only works at speeds up to 19 mph, but according to Volvo, that accounts for 75 percent of all accidents.

Jim Henry is a freelance automotive writer based in New Jersey.

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