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Modern Car Features for the Aging Driver

Some models are a better fit for aging drivers. Here's what to consider when shopping for your next set of wheels.

EDITOR'S NOTE: This article was originally published in the October 2009 issue of Kiplinger's Retirement Report. To subscribe, click here.

Shopping for a new car? Sure, that snazzy two-seater convertible looks like fun. But if you plan to keep the car for a while, look for design features that can help make driving safer and easier as you age.

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You’ll first want to be sure that you can enter and exit the car with little trouble. Over time a person can lose strength, so bounding from a low-riding car is no longer a snap. Look for a car with wide door openings and low thresholds.

Ideal seat height is between mid-thigh and lower buttocks when you’re standing next to the vehicle. While you may be accustomed to a sedan, a crossover sports utility vehicle is often “a lot more comfortable to get in and out of,” says John Nielsen, director of AAA National’s approved auto repair and auto buying services. Instead of having to bend down to enter, the driver can slide in and out of the vehicle. A crossover SUV is smaller than a traditional SUV, which requires too much climbing.

Adjustable seats with lumbar support are also useful. Seats should adjust six ways -- forward and backward, up and down, and the seat-back up and down. A tilting or telescopic steering wheel is also helpful, as are adjustable foot pedals that can move closer to you.

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For those with arthritic hands and diminished motor skills, a thicker steering wheel is easier to grip, says Nielsen. Keyless entry and keyless ignition can avoid the pain of turning a key. Power mirrors and power seats let you make adjustments at the push of a button. Those with vision problems should consider dashboards with larger buttons and instrumentation that’s clearly labeled with contrasting text.

Wide-angle mirrors and a large back window become more critical as it becomes harder to turn to look behind you. “You want a big greenhouse, a lot of glass,” says James Riswick, automotive editor for Edmunds.com.

Test visibility when you’re shopping. While sitting in the car, have someone walk behind it to make sure you can clearly see out the back, suggests Nielsen.

High-tech items such as parking sensors, back-up cameras and blind-spot warning systems can alert drivers to objects in the way. Lane-departure systems will let you know if you’re drifting out of your lane. A few cars will even parallel park themselves. You can find high-tech features in both luxury and mid-price cars.

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If you’re not a gadget person, look for a car that keeps things simple. “New cars are designed to look cool and work like an iPod,” Riswick says. “They can be complicated even for those far from retirement.” Hyundai, Toyota and Honda cater to those who seek simpler design, he says.

You might want a roomy vehicle for visiting grandkids. Riswick suggests looking for a large trunk, which could hold a mobility scooter or golf clubs.

Resources to Help You Shop

Review Edmunds.com’s list of “Top 10 Vehicles for Seniors for 2009” (www.edmunds.com/reviews/list/top10). Edmunds’ top ten are: 2009 BMW 5 Series, 2010 Ford Taurus, 2009 Honda Civic and Civic Hybrid, 2009 Honda Odyssey, 2009 Lexus SL 460, 2009 Mazda Mazda6, 2010 Mercedes-Benz S550, 2009 Toyota Avalon, 2010 Toyota Prius and 2010 Volvo XC60.

Not on the list, but worth a look? Riswick says older drivers should also consider Hyundai’s offerings and the Ford Fusion. If you’re thinking of buying a used car, look at the lists from previous years.

You can also find ratings in AAA’s Smart Features for Mature Drivers, developed with the National Older Driver Research and Training Center at the University of Florida. The eight-page listing, which is available at www.aaaseniors.com, checks off 20 “smart features” for 32 brands and 120 models. The Cadillac STS, for example, has all but two “smart features.” The Hyundai Veracruz has every feature available.

If you buy a car before 2010, Uncle Sam will help you out. You can deduct the sales and excise tax paid up to $49,500 on a new vehicle.

For more authoritative guidance on retirement investing, slashing taxes and getting the best health care, click here for a FREE sample issue of Kiplinger’s Retirement Report.

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