Building a better boomer mobile

French filmmaker Jean Cocteau once said in a philosophical ode to the automobile: “A car can massage organs which no masseur can reach. It is the one remedy for the disorders of the great sympathetic nervous system.”

Although Cocteau probably wasn’t driving a minivan full of screaming kids when he uttered this effusive testimonial, anyone who has ever sped down a scenic highway in a sporty model with the top down and the pedal to the floor truly understands where he’s coming from.

The car, as Cocteau suggests, is definitely more than the sum of its parts, a chunk of steel that takes us from point A to point B. Like fashionable clothing, a car says something about who we are, symbolizing wealth, style or sex appeal. We celebrate cars in songs and movies and fill huge stadiums to watch them race around in circles. It can be balm against mid-life angst or a way to celebrate that promotion or change in life. We even get nostalgic about our past cars, remembering the endless hot drives on summer vacation or picking up our first dates in dad’s hopelessly dorky family car.

This metaphorical value we give to cars is no doubt due to the essential role it plays in our daily lives, from picking up groceries, taking the kids or grandkids to hockey games, driving to the family cottage and getting to and from work. Simply put, most of us would be lost without one.

And it becomes even more indispensable as we age. Figures show that Canadians 55 and up drove an astonishing 100 million kms on our roads last year, almost one third of the total for all age drivers. And surprisingly, 71 per cent of Canadians over 65 and 66 per cent of men up to the age of 85 are still driving the highways and byways of this nation – further proof that our life love affair with the automobile does not diminish with age.

For older Canadians a car is a means to an independent lifestyle, allowing the driver to get out on his or her own, without having to hitch a ride, pay for a taxi or wait for the next bus. In fact, studies show that seniors who drive are twice as likely to get out of the house during the day as those who don’t. It’s good to be mobile which probably explains why older people sometimes hang on to their car keys too long, reluctant to give up any bit of freedom.

So with all these 50-plussers on the road, what kind of cars are they driving and what kind of advances are car manufacturers making with this demographic in mind? It’s hard to answer these questions definitively, as car companies haven’t yet designed or marketed an individual model geared specifically to 50-plus market.

Anecdotally, however, it seems that the old stereotype of the silver-haired retiree driving a road-hogging, gas-guzzling, North American-made prestige car no longer applies. With many Canadians working later in life and remaining active a lot longer, it stands to reason that the cars they’re buying will reflect this. Couple that with skyrocketing fuel prices and the ever increasing congestion on our highways, it’s clear to see why size and style might be giving way to fuel efficiency and comfort as the major factors in determining what kind of car we buy.

Jennifer Wardle, of Toronto, is certainly following this trend. The 60-year-old is currently in the market for a new car to replace her well worn Nissan Sentra. As a full-time executive assistant who uses public transportation to get to work, she only puts on about 9,000 kms a year, which includes two or three longer weekend excursions.

Despite this, she feels strongly about owning a car. “My lifestyle would be negatively impacted if I did not have a car,” says Wardle. “I am single and live alone and would be much more limited in being able to come and go without my own car; and would also feel more isolated.”

So, Wardle feels sticker price, fuel efficiency but most of all reliability will influence her decision more than size, style, prestige or handling. “My last car lasted 13 plus years,” says Wardle, who is certainly looking for more of the same in her next purchase.

Before buying, Wardle is rigourously doing her homework. “I have several models in mind but I’m still gathering information on other cars,” she says. She also researched reviews on CanadianDriver, but only test drove her initial two choices – a Honda Civic or a Toyota Corolla.

Graham Richards, a 65-year-old retiree living in Burlington, ON, didn’t list fuel efficiency as a top concern when he recently purchased his 2006 Chevy Equinox SUV. “Being retired, I was able to take my time and look at a lot of cars over a three-month period,” says Richards, who was then driving a sporty 1999 Mercedes Benz ML 320. “I no longer put such a huge number of kms on the car as I did when I was working so mileage wasn’t a prime factor in my decision.”

“Since I’ve retired my cars last much longer so I want to get one that has special features that suit our lifestyle,” he says. “I wanted eight-way power seats and enough room to pack stuff for trips to the cottage and winters in Florida. And, I looked for a flip-down front seat to carry the odd 2X4.” His wife wanted a comfortable interior as well as a sun-roof to make the longer trips enjoyable. An SUV fulfilled all these requirements and when he got the price he was looking for he decided to buy.

Because those 50 and over account for more than half of automobile sales in North America, car companies are starting to pay more attention to the needs of this market of experienced car buyers, and designing new features that will appeal to it. A Ford consumer survey suggests that automakers are waking up to this fact. The company’s Consumer Trend and Marketing team suggests that the company needs to “introduce non-stereotypical, age-compensating products and services that address this group’s needs.”

In plain English, Ford and other companies need to factor in the annoying physical restrictions that come with aging, such as stiff knees, sore backs, poor mobility and reduced vision. These not only inhibit our comfort while driving but also make it harder to operate the vehicle safely. With one in three older drivers experiencing vision reduction and 17 per cent complaining of some form of physical impairment, the company’s marketing team concludes that, “clearly, Ford must keep in mind these physiological trends as we design vehicles to meet the needs of consumers.”

Kerri Stoakley, a spokesperson for Ford Canada, explains how the automaker is aiming to do this.

“Ford’s desire to understand the unique needs of older customers led to the development of our Third Age Suit,” says Stoakley. This research tool is used to assist ergonomics engineers to developing vehicles by understanding the physical restrictions of aging.

“The suit is made up of materials that add bulk and restrict movement in key areas of the body, such as the knees, elbows, stomach and back,” says Stoakley. “Together with gloves that reduce sense of touch and goggles that simulate cataracts, the Third Age Suit gives Ford engineers and designers a feel for the needs of an older generation as they design vehicles.”

Some of the features that Ford has come up with to overcome age-related physical restrictions include power adjustable seats, tilt and telescoping steering wheels, one touch up and down power windows, reverse sensing (for those who have trouble backing up) roomy interiors and high seating positions. For those with vision problems, engineers are working on “clear view” window and mirror technology, which aims to reduce glare and fogging and eliminate blind spots.

Other car companies are following suit. Toyota has attempted to respond to the physical needs of older drivers by installing features aimed at overcoming physical restrictions.

“Many [of these features] come standard on all our vehicles,” says Nicole Grant, public relations consultant for Toyota Canada. “Like clear, brightly lit dashboard dials that are much easy to read and easy-to-use dials and controls designed to be as simple to use as possible for all drivers.”

For those with reduced vision, Grant says that many Toyota and Lexus vehicles have an optional “back-up camera”, a device near the back license plate that feeds images onto the front console navigation screen, allowing the driver to see exactly what is behind him or her. Not only does it aid drivers with poor vision, but it’s a boon for anyone who has ever tried to reverse out of a shopping mall parking lot on a busy Saturday afternoon.

And, if you have a stiff neck or back, you know what a painful chore it is trying to nudge the car back and forth into a tiny parking space on busy urban streets. Newer Lexus models overcome this by offering a self park feature, a complex system of sonar and sensors which actually parallel parks the car automatically, removing the potential head wrenching, dinged fenders and general frustration that often accompanies this exercise.

Toyota is also trying to tailor their features to the physically restricted driver by adding certain special mobility assistance equipment. The new Sienna minivan, for example, can be purchased equipped with ramps that enable wheelchair or scooter access through the side sliding doors. Or, for those who finding getting in and out of a car a painful exercise, Toyota’s new Lift-Up Power Mobility Seats might be a solution. Operated by remote control, the middle seats move along a track out the side door and lower to the ground. The passenger sits on the seat and it slides back into its proper setting. To help defray the costs, Toyota has set up a Mobility Program which offers up to $1,000 for those who purchase a new Toyota vehicle with this equipment installed.

So far, car companies are responding to the needs of 50-plus North Americans, not by designing a specific car for aging motorists but by devising clever and useful features that will ease our driving experience. Above all, they’re careful to package these features carefully, so as not doesn’t make its owners look or feel old — style, performance, comfort and, perhaps most importantly, cost cannot be sacrificed.

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Successful cars often define an age. The big 50s muscle cars with their huge horsepower defined a strong post-war America and the massively gaudy cars in the 70s mimicked the over-the-top disco age. Now, automakers need to produce a vehicle that taps into graying generation, a car which appeals to a demographic that loves the automobile while, at the same time, answering its lifestyle and physical needs. And, just like SUVs and minivans did for the auto industry in the 90s, the 50-plus car could be the tonic to revitalize the current sagging car industry.