Aging boomers get bigger cars as they get older

July 28, 1993|By Jill Amadio | Jill Amadio,Longevity International Ltd.

Are you still picking a car based in part on its looks, its lines and the shape of its body? If you are, you may be neglecting something much more important: your body.

As baby boomers get a little bit older -- and a little bit stiffer -- the days of squeezing into a pint-sized Porsche or a cramped Corvette may be coming to an end.

Increasingly, market-wise auto manufacturers, recognizing the buying power of the boomer generation, are designing a new breed of cars intended less to enhance your image than to soothe your aching back, stiff neck and overtired eyes.

The science behind the new car designs is known as ergonomics, the art of molding machinery around the shape of the human body, rather than the other way around.

Traditionally, the part of the body that takes the most automotive abuse is the back. The part of the car responsible is, not surprisingly, the seat.

"A poor car seat can spell trouble," says David C. Viano, the principal research scientist at the General Motors Research and Environmental Laboratories in Warren, Mich. "Our upper backs, lumbar region, thighs and head are among the critical areas that need support."

Most existing car seats fail the support test in a number of ways. Most adjust only forward or backward, forcing people of all body types to conform to what is essentially a rigid, one-size-serves-all chair.

This year's cars are designed to tackle these problems.

Some feature seats that can be tilted up or down, forward or backward, reclined at different angles and even raised or lowered. While a few automakers have long included these options, 1993 marks the first time they are becoming widely available.

Among the admittedly costly cars that feature adjustable seats are the Lexus LS400, the Audi 100, the Mercedes-Benz S-Class, the Saab 9000 and some Cadillacs and Lincolns.

At Pontiac, seat technology is going a step further. William Watson, an engineer, and his staff have helped to develop a multi-adjustable seat that includes a system of three inflatable "bladders" built into the backrest, providing support for the lower, middle and upper back.

"The priority is the lumbar system," Mr. Watson says. "Our seat bladders overlap each other vertically in order to adjust to the driver's entire lumbar region."

At Volkswagen, seat design is taking the wrists and arms into consideration as well. The automaker's new EuroVan includes armrests that can be adjusted to different positions so the elbows conform to the preferred seat position. The result is reduced muscle tension and a more alert driver.

At Lexus, rear-seat passengers get a break, too. For people tired of stooping and straining to get into and out of the backs of cars, Lexus features a power walk-in device that slides the front seats forward, and advanced door hinges that swing the doors out and away from the car, providing exceptionally wide openings.

For people who drive a lot -- especially at night -- eye strain can be as big a problem as back strain.

In recent years, the fad in --board design has been digital display, a gaudy concession to American consumers' taste for high-tech.

Research at Saab and other auto companies, however, has shown that the eyes don't detect changes in digital readouts as easily as they do the position of large instrument needles. This means more direct focusing on the --board and, ultimately, greater eye fatigue.

To combat this, Lexus, for example, is designing an instrument panel that is just plain bigger -- and thus easier to see -- than any other on the market.

Other vision-enhancing advances in the Lexus and other 1993 cars include --boards with non-reflective glass, windshields with built-in ultraviolet filtration and -- on Chrysler's Concorde, Vision and Intrepid sedans -- instrument clusters with easy-on-the-eye fluorescent illumination.

While all of these ergonomic innovations can nudge up the sticker price of a car at least a little, designers argue that the additional money may be wisely spent.

Fatigued drivers are distracted drivers, and distracted drivers are less likely to react quickly to a highway emergency. For a few extra dollars, they argue, you get a lot more than luxury.

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