What's the Best Car for Older Drivers?

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A four-generation car that started with my late mom. (Photo: Lloyd Alter)

That's my late mom's 2000 Toyota Echo, with her 45-year-old vintage license plates. It's a four-generation car; she drove it into her 90s, then I drove it for a few years and now my daughter drives it with her brand new baby. I would have thought it was the perfect car for older drivers; it's cheap to maintain, gets great gas mileage, simple and straightforward with no complicated electronics, and it's really easy to park.

It always surprised me with what it could do. We drove it with five mostly full-sized adults and a lot of luggage for five hours from Toronto to Montreal and it never complained. (I was the middle passenger in the back seat, and I just complained a bit.)

This is a car for aging boomers?. (Photo: Kevauto [CC BY-SA 4.0]/Wikipedia)

So when I recently saw an article titled 5 most popular 2019 SUVs for seniors, I was outraged. I'm no fan of SUVs for anyone, and their top pick is a big, expensive Acura SUV with all the new electronics including "a wide variety of safety features including a rearview camera, blind spot monitoring, brake assist, and pedestrian detection." Other recommendations were Jeep Cherokees and Toyota Highlanders, all monsters that I thought would be too high, too hard to park, too expensive and like other SUVs, too deadly; pedestrians are three times as likely to die if hit by an SUV or pickup truck than they are if hit by a regular car. I was seriously ready to rant.

AAA likes fancy new smart tech

However, when doing more research, I had to calm down a bit. AAA, working with the Institute for Mobility, Activity and Participation at the University of Florida, loves all this stuff you can't find in a 20-year-old Toyota. Six-way adjustable seats are better for those with leg issues. Leather or faux leather is easier to slide in and out of. Got arthritis? Keyless entry, power mirrors (the Toyota didn't even have power windows!) push-button ignition. Got cognitive issues? "Classic Car designs — limited technology or added features lessen distractions and improve familiarity with controls" – perhaps that's who gets the Echo.

As we get older, some people have limited range of motions, so backup cameras, parallel park assistance, front and rear sensors make life easier. And just in case, airbags everywhere, but be sure that they are "Dual-stage and dual-threshold airbags, because senior drivers risk injury if airbags deploy with too much force."

AAA does good research, but they've been around since 1902 promoting automobiles, and there doesn't seem to be a new technology they don't love. It's clear all of these high-tech add-ons can make a difference, but they all add up to make a car very expensive and high-maintenance.

There's also not a peep about which cars are safest for the people outside the car, which isn't surprising because until recently, that variable wasn't even measured in North America. As Sarah Holder noted in CityLab, "the number of deaths involving SUVs increased 20 percent faster than that of passenger cars between 2013 and 2017, as retail sales of light trucks like them increased dramatically. With their greater mass and limited driver visibility, SUVs have proved to be more lethal than their smaller cousins." This should be taken into consideration.

Consumer Reports likes little SUVs

Then there's Consumer Reports, which comes up with a list of its 5 best cars for savvy seniors, and they're all SUVs, but "cross-overs" — mostly smaller, built on a car chassis rather than a truck's. They're all imports, so they're designed to comply with Euro NCAP regulations for pedestrian safety, with lower, rounded front ends. Consumers Reports' key criteria:

Advanced safety features, good visibility, easy access, no-nonsense tech and/or knob controls, quiet cabin, good ride quality.

They like the mini-SUVs because "older drivers may no longer commute to work every day, but they might need a car for longer road trips or one that can easily fit a car seat when it’s time to pick up the grandkids." I have to note that car seats fit in any car, including the back seat of the Echo. But OK, I agree that "either way, a vehicle that’s a breeze to get into and out of is a must."

Their top pick is a Subaru Forester.

The same easy access that makes the Forester a great fit for a growing family makes it an ideal choice for older drivers. We’re especially impressed with its simple controls, standard safety features, and excellent front and rear visibility.
Subaru Impreza
My wife's Subaru, smaller than a Forester but big enough for us. (Photo: Lloyd Alter)

This is ... sensible. My wife drives a Subaru Impreza and we previously owned an Outback, bought the same day as that Toyota Echo back in 2000. They are reliable, basic cars. All of Consumer Reports' recommendations are sensible, economical crossovers. Interestingly, Subarus come out on top in the new Insurance Institute for Highway Safety picks for the safest cars on the road.

But Consumer Reports and the others never mention the small matter of climate change, recommending less fuel-efficient 4-wheel drive so that our older drivers are "ready for adventure." No Nissan Leaf or other little electric car that's cheap to operate and great for short trips.

Planning for 'driver retirement'

Lloyd Alter in Copenhagen
In Copenhagen, a lot of people ride e-bikes, including me. It's a mode of transportation many seniors should consider. (Photo: With permission to Lloyd Alter)

And I just couldn't write this post without mentioning that other alternative, which I'm trying and have discussed before: throw away the car keys. There are other ways to get around, and you have to plan ahead. Tracy E. Noble of AAA writes that "seniors are outliving their safe driving years by an average of seven to 10 years, and must now start planning for their “driving retirement,” much the same as they plan for their financial retirement." These new car technologies may extend those driving years a bit, but at some point, you are stuck. Noble continues:

Senior drivers are generally smart drivers. Seniors kill fewer motorists and pedestrians than drivers of any other age group and have the lowest crash involvement rates per licensed driver. They know their limitations, so they drive less, less at night and less in inclement weather. Unfortunately older drivers become more crash-prone with age, even though they may drive less. With the exception of teenagers, older Americans have the highest crash death rate per mile driven, not because of a lack of skill but because older drivers are more fragile and their fatality rates are 17 times higher than those of 25-64 year olds.

I know my limitations, and I know that I and everyone around me is safer when I'm on foot, on the streetcar, or on my new e-bike. More people should consider those options.