A Logical Approach to Car Buying

The average duration for new-car ownership has been cited as 71.4 months (nearly 6 years). That’s a long time to be married to a vehicle you may end up not liking.

Two years ago when I embarked on finding a new car to own and drive, it was never my intention to look at 95 (or even 25) vehicles. I just couldn’t find one that had the comfort, visibility and other features that were important to me… and it didn’t seem to matter how much I spent. My budget was $55,000, which enabled me to look at a lot of vehicles.

Certainly you can default to the judgment of experts and select a top vehicle from the list of, say, Consumer Reports (CR) – by all means, read their Road Test report – but that’s not a substitute for your own comprehensive investigation. I found a host of other features that CR doesn’t cover meaningfully or at all. As a result, I created my own two-page checklist to augment their report. Due to space limitations, I can’t come close to covering everything on my list so I’ve limited my discussion here to just one topic: interior storage.

In Safety Mandates Compromise Vehicle Visibility/Comfort (NMA’s Winter 2015 issue of Driving Freedoms), I described the first phase of my car-shopping quest in which I assessed 95 midsize sedans and SUVs solely on my ability to comfortably rest my left arm on the window sill. Based on that test alone, I quickly eliminated 70 vehicles from a variety of brands.

It’s mind-boggling how vehicle designers fail to comprehend certain user-friendly features including interior storage space which ultimately became a time-consuming part of my assessment.

It’s pretty basic stuff: door pockets, seatback pockets, glove box, and bins in the ceiling, dashboard and center console. We all need places to store things, so you’d think automakers would maximize the number and size of storage spaces, and design these spaces for items that folks most often use. You would think that, right? Well…

Based on my shopping experience two years ago that included 25 midsize sedans and SUVs on my short list, here’s what I found:

Door Pockets: Only seven had good door pockets in the front and rear. Most of the front pockets were good, but the rear pockets were small or designed only for bottles. Two vehicles – the Lexus RX-350 and Lincoln MKS – had no rear pockets.

Seatback Pockets: Most were good – made of the same material as the seats – but others had netting, which makes it more difficult to slide a magazine into. The Jeep Patriot had no seatback pocket, and two vehicles – the Jeep Cherokee and Toyota FJ Cruiser (now discontinued) – had only one.

Glove Box: No glove box was as easy to access as my previous car, a 1995 Buick Regal, simply because my Regal didn’t have a passenger-side airbag. As a result of these airbags, glove boxes are inherently lower. Still there are differences among new vehicles. Many have the latch off-center to the left, which makes for a shorter reach. Accessing the glove box in the Volvo S80, Jeep Cherokee, Ford Escape, Acura RDX and BMW X4 was more challenging than most.

The glove box should also be a reasonable shape, size and… LIGHTED. The FJ Cruiser was the only one not lighted, and two others were odd: The Toyota 4Runner’s light was red and the Acura RDX’s light was dull and only worked when the parking lights were on. No one could explain these oddities at either dealership. With the Volkswagen Passat, the key had to be engaged.

Ceiling Bin (for sunglasses): A dedicated ceiling-mounted slot for sunglasses seems like a sensible idea, right? Well, it’s amazing that expensive vehicles, such as the Volvo S80, Lexus RX-350, VW Touareg, BMW X3, Mercedes GLK (now discontinued), Mercedes C250 (now discontinued), Land Rover LR2 (now discontinued), and Volvo XC60 did not have one. Nor did the Jeep Patriot or Toyota FJ Cruiser.

Center Armrest Bin: Some were shallow, short, had flimsy lids or a combination of the three. Only four – the Land Rover LR2, Lincoln MKC, Toyota 4Runner and Jeep Cherokee – contained dedicated coin slots, but even the design of these slots could’ve been better. My Regal had a spring-loaded coin box with separate compartments for nickels, dimes and quarter. None of the new vehicles had anything comparable.

Six vehicles had quirky lids, including stiff hinges on the Range Rover Evoque, Touareg, RX-350 and S80. Lids on Acura’s RDX and MDX models only rose to 75° and were too far forward, making for awkward access. The LR2 and FJ Cruiser didn’t have covered bins.

Center Console/Dash Compartments: Besides maps, magazines, sunglasses, the owner’s manual, and registration and insurance documents, you’re likely to want to store a small notepad, cell phone, gum, pens, coins and trash. Regarding the latter, it’s hard to find a vehicle nowadays with an ashtray. Sure, smoking is in decline, but don’t automakers realize that the ashtray was a good place for small non-tobacco trash too? (I used the one in my Regal for gum wrappers; others use them for coins.)

Comparing this type of storage was probably the most difficult part. None had adequate bins in this category. Most vehicles had bins around the shifter, and some had them in the dash. Three vehicles – the S80, RX-350 and RR Evoque – had pass-thru compartments in the bottom center of the dash – an innovative way to store things, but not so accessible when you’re driving. (I wouldn’t want to keep my cell phone there.)

I also looked at drink holders, but didn’t dwell on them much. All vehicles seemed to have adequate drink holders, and they were all located for easy access – which makes them tempting to use for miscellaneous storage, but you should not have to depend on drink holders to store non-drink items.

I can’t recall if any of the 25 vehicles I looked at had parking brakes in the center, but they all had shifters in the center – shifters that take up a lot of space (that could be used for more storage). If a shifter is electronic, why does it have to be in the center of the car since it merely sends a signal to the transmission? It could be on the dashboard (in a retro sort of way hearkening back to the 1950s). I imagine that all new vehicles have electronic shifters or will have them soon, so why not move them to an unobstructed location and open the center console for more storage?

Besides interior storage, I looked at differences in insurance, ease of routine maintenance, trunk access (for sedans), rear seating, and a bevy of individual items (e.g. vehicle dimensions/access, visors, ceiling handles, rear window drop, and key fobs). New car buyers should look at car reviews by the likes of Consumer Reports, Kelley Blue Book and Edmunds, but also keep in mind that some of the little things those resources gloss over or ignore will be perennial annoyances.

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2 Responses to “A Logical Approach to Car Buying”

  1. John Carr says:

    I like to call out road designers for not thinking about how people will really use their roads. I’m glad to see somebody doing to same for car designers.

    • KC Green says:

      You’re referring to AASHTO-compliant highway design, and I will tell you there is nothing more I’m passionate about. Highway designers (aka civil/transportation engineers) truly want to design roads and bridges that comply with AASHTO guidelines, but political barriers subvert the process. Ya know the phrase “Don’t shoot the messenger?” When it comes to poorly-designed roads I say, “Don’t blame the engineers.”

      Anyway, there are plenty of articles I could write about this topic, but I don’t think they’d get much attention in the blog section. Of the last 20 blog articles, most don’t have any comments… and the others have only one.