Recently, we posted a story on things taller drivers should be looking out for when purchasing a new vehicle. It suddenly became obvious that we should also provide some advice for those of lesser stature. We polled our smaller friends to find out their challenges when finding a new car.
Vehicles sold here are obviously designed for the “average” American, but it’s nearly impossible to make a vehicle fit everyone, even just a few categories away from what you’d describe as average. For instance, the “average” American male is 5’10”. The standard deviation among American males is about three inches. That means the “average” American male can be anywhere from 5’7″ to 6’1″ tall. There are almost 15 million American males alone that fall between 5’1″ and 5’7″.
Now consider that the average woman in the United States is just under 5’4″, according to the National Health and Nutrition Examination Study. That puts tens of millions of women between 4’10 and 5’2″ tall.
Erica Seifert Plunkett is one of those women. She’s 4’11” and has to carefully consider her options when shopping for a vehicle.
“Honestly, the biggest thing I look for is when I need to pull the seat up, does my knee hit the steering column,” says Erica Seifert Plunkett. “That drives me insane. It hasn’t happened with any cars lately.”
She finds certain vehicle classes particularly troublesome, to the point where she doesn’t feel like she can drive them at all. “It’s very challenging for me to drive convertibles, because the back window is generally so tiny,” she says.
Nicole Wakelin — who writes regularly here — writes about her mom’s challenges:
Nicole also mentioned appropriate placement of grab handles:
My own mom is 89. The last time she was measured, she was a shade under 5′ tall and shrinking. For years, she wanted a VW Beetle.
She leased one a couple of years ago and loved it, until she had to close the cargo hatch the first time she got groceries. She went back to the dealer and the service folks tied a shoelace to the handle so she could reach it when it was raised.
Victoria Pridgen, one of Car Talk’s staff of nitwits, also commented on the hatch handle issue. She drives — among a half-dozen other hilariously inappropriate vehicles — a Fiat 500e, the electrified version of Fiat’s tiny coupe.
A lot of features like multiple seat adjustments and memory functions have been around for quite a while, but several relative new — and rare — features are getting high marks from the small set:
Height adjustment is typically billed as a feature that allows the tailgate to open without banging into a low garage opening, but it’s also a boon to smaller drivers. If you haven’t figured out how to adjust it, there are a number of videos on YouTube to show you how:
Another tailgate-related feature is the hatch on the Ford Escape that opens simply by waving a foot under the rear bumper:
Erica agrees that it’s one of her favorite features in the Ford Escape she eventually purchased after shopping for a car that met her needs. She does caution, though, that one particular challenge for her in Massachusetts winters is removing snow. Massachusetts requires that drivers completely clear snow from the roof, and it’s a tall order — heh — on just about any crossover. She notes that her Escape is better than the Kia Sorento she traded, but it’s still something she struggles with.
But for the most part, the Escape has been a great vehicle. “What I LOVE about this new Escape is that driver’s seat is incredibly adjustable. I can move it front and back, up and down. But not only that: when I move it up, I can lower just the front part of the seat down, so I’m sitting up high, but my feet can reach the gas and brake,” she says.
Lyndon Johnson’s wife is 5’3″ tall. “The big selling points are being able to see (big windows a plus), a sensible H-point and low beltline, and ease of parking/backing,” he says. “She likes to know where the corners of her car are located. She went from saying the Nissan cube was ‘weird’ to falling head-over-heels in love with it from the first time she sat in one. That’s how we ended up with two of them.”
The other selling point for the Nissan cube was the ability that both Lyndon and his wife — who range in height from 5’3″ to 6’3″ — could both fit with relative comfort. “That can be more challenging than it sounds. What made the cube such a winner is it has a sensible chair height so you’re neither falling down into it nor clambering up into it.”
He says the side-opening hatch in the cube was a feature that made it so attractive. “While not as space-efficient as an overhead-opening hatch, it’s a hell of a lot easier for her to reach. We’re test-driving a few new cars now, and that’s one thing that’ll take some getting used to.”
Visibility has become a huge issue in recent years. A-, B- and C-pillars have become more and more stout to provide roof strength and hide the many airbags a vehicle is required to have. Headrests protect occupants in a crash, but in a vehicle with seven seating positions can impede visibility:
To combat this issue, Subaru’s latest vehicle — the Ascent SUV — features a “mirror” like those found in a motorhome. It’s a camera with a full-width screen that displays the rear view.
For a lot of drivers, though, the adjustments and technology are helpful, but not 100 percent of the way there yet:
It’s true that a seat in the fully forward position can be ridiculously close to the steering wheel, which may not offer enough forward adjustment. That presents a significant safety issue considering the proximity of the airbag to the driver.
So, shorter drivers: What have we missed here? What cars have been particularly helpful for you? What are some features or designs that simply don’t work for you? We’d love to hear from you.