Maybe It’s Time To Cross Over.
For years the Mercury Monarch was known as the state car of Florida, a reference to the capacious sedan’s standing as a favorite of the senior citizens and retirees who migrated south to the Sunshine State every winter, some of them barely able to peer over the steering wheel as they went.
Though Ford undoubtedly enjoyed the sales of the dowdy sedan, the last thing any car maker wanted was to be known for selling an old person’s car. And so, in 1980 the Monarch—like so many of its owners—was retired.
More Senior Drivers on the Roads
In hindsight, however, maybe Ford should have kept the Monarch in production because today the fastest growing segment of the driving population is seniors. According to AARP, in 2003 about 1 in 7 licensed drivers was 65 or older. By 2029, when the last of the Baby Boomers will turn 65, the proportion of senior drivers to their juniors will be close to 1 in 4.
It’s hard to say what to make of all this, as most aging Americans aren’t even aware that they’re getting older. According to a study for the Journal of Gerentology, men and women aged 70 or over typically see themselves as 13 years younger than their chronological age. It’s bad enough for the aging athlete who can’t understand what’s happened to his fast ball; it’s worse for the motorist who no longer possesses the faculties—vision, hearing, reflexes, coordination—he or she once did.
Car Manufacturers Respond
Fortunately, carmakers have come up with a number of ways to accommodate our physical and cognitive frailties, with every year bringing a new array of devices aimed at making driving safer and more comfortable for seniors. As a result the new favorite in the Senior Sweepstakes is the crossover SUV, a category that didn’t even exist in the Monarch’s heyday.
But, just what is a crossover SUV? In January 2008, the Wall Street Journal said a crossover was a wagon that looked like an SUV but rode like a car. This is true, so far as it goes, but it doesn’t tell us much.
First of all, a crossover is not a wagon, which is a full-sized vehicle with an extended, flat-topped roof. Rather it’s the amiable cousin to the athletic little hatchbacks that dominated the rally circuits in Europe, where station wagons were virtually unknown.
As for the rugged, four-wheel-drive SUVs so familiar to American motorists, as the New York Times reported in November 2000, they were consigned to the nether strata of the European social geology. Germans and Brits saw SUVs as ugly, ungainly trucks—the sort of things only a laborer could love.
However ugly the SUV is to Europeans, in the 1990s their smaller, rally-inspired compacts had begun to migrate across the pond to the States, where they were taking on a new identity—the crossover SUV, a vehicle that was car-based, rather than built on a truck platform.
For Baby Boomers, this was just the ticket. The crossover’s greater headroom made it easier to get in and out of than a low-slung sedan or convertible, and it wasn’t a struggle to climb up into like a SUV or van. On the road, its smaller size and nimble dynamics made it easier to drive, while its lighter weight made for greater fuel economy. And because crossovers still offered the flexibility of folding rear seats, these vehicles were ideal for seniors’ road trips with passengers or cargo.
Paradoxically, American car makers, who had pioneered the rugged, go-anywhere SUV, were slow to grasp the implications of the imported crossover. An SUV was an SUV was an SUV, right? But the import badge, coupled with the more comfortable ride, held out the promise of something else.
Baby Boomers who had popularized the off-road ruggedness of the Ford Bronco and Chevy Blazer in their youth, now wanted something else—luxury, comfort and safety. That’s what they got in the crossover.
What Do Seniors Want… or Need ?
So it’s no wonder that when the folks at Consumer Reports decided to publish a list of the 25 Best Cars for Seniors, the top five were all crossovers—the Subaru Forester, Subaru Outback, Kia Soul, Subaru Legacy and Kia Sportage. But the criteria they applied weren’t so much high tech gadgets—cameras that display bird’s-eye views of objects and people behind and around the car, or cruise control systems that enable drivers to drive with feet off the pedals and hands off the steering wheel.
Instead Consumer Reports used such common sense factors as visibility: Did the driver have an unobstructed view of the landscape all the way around? Controls: Are the car’s gauges and controls easy to read and understand? Are the knobs and buttons for sound systems and climate control easy to reach and control? How about gear shifts? There have been recalls for vehicles whose gear selectors are so confusing they’ve led to accidents. Headlights: Cars can vary dramatically so far as lighting up the road ahead, a concern when you consider vision can rapidly deteriorate after 60.
For all the attention given to senior motorists, none of this is to suggest that older drivers, in no matter what they’re driving, are a hazard on the road. There is one group of drivers, however, whose driving record is far worse than the oldest drivers’—and that’s the youngest.
Jack Smith has been a car buff since childhood, when his father designed auto bodies for Philadelphia’s E. G. Budd Company. His work has appeared in The New York Times, Philadelphia Inquirer, Town & Country, GQ and the Robb Report, where he created the “Connoisseur at Large” column. He won three gold “Motos” for automotive travel writing.