Are SUVs the Best Choice for Seniors? Maybe Not.

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli | Oct 27, 2016

I noticed something this week. I am test driving a 2017 Nissan Pathfinder Platinum 4WD, a loaded ($46,555) and full-sized SUV. And for a guy still recovering from a knee operation, entry and exit is really easy.

I gotta admit, there's something to be said for the ride height of this Pathfinder. (Jim Motavalli photo)

I’m comparing it here to my tiny Mazda Miata, which I kind of fall into. The procedure is like this: I aim for the leather seat, and then bombs away. I land with a plop, with a dull ache in my left knee. Then, of course, I have to get my legs over the sill, under the steering wheel, then aligned with the pedals (which include a clutch). If I’m wearing big shoes, it’s a big problem.

I love my Miata; that’s not the issue. I love that it gets 30 mpg, handles great and is incredibly maneuverable. I might even buy a smaller car. And yet, and yet. It’s really easy to get in and out of that Pathfinder. I’m not retirement age yet, but a physical injury really makes you appreciate the challenges older drivers have.

Is my future behind the wheel of a Pathfinder--or something along the same lines? (Jim Motavalli photo)

Consumer Reports recently surveyed cars for older drivers, and found a mixed field. “Some [automakers] are designing controls with larger buttons and more readable labeling,” it said. “For drivers who find it difficult to turn their heads, features such as rear-backup cameras, blind-spot-detection systems, small convex mirrors added to a car’s regular side mirrors, and cross-­traffic alerts that detect passing cars in the rear when backing up help increase visibility and awareness of surrounding cars.” CR gave high marks to several generations of Toyota Highlander:

While SUVs offer some advantages for an older driver, like a raised seating position that helps visibility, sometimes they require a big climb to get in or ride like trucks. The Highlander has always managed to avoid those brutish tendencies. All three generations of the Highlander [up until 2014] have easy access, plenty of glass for good vision, and drive more like a station wagon than a pickup.

The Pathfinder I'm driving has all these same virtues. It drives like a car, not a truck, and has excellent visibility—though that doesn’t include seeing the corners of the vehicle when you’re trying to park it in tight spots. That includes the restaurant parking lot—with a stone wall around it—I shoehorned into last night. The backup camera helps, but the high ride height and humungous size of the vehicle means you can’t always see what’s happening down below. The controls are pretty easy to use, though the labels could be larger.

So I have to balance a few things when thinking of my next car, including general misgivings about the whole SUV category. I don’t want a gas guzzler, and not just because of the cost of fill-ups. Fuel economy is directly related, for instance, to greenhouse gas emissions. Take a look at this Sightline Institute chart, which makes that point very well.

SUV gas guzzling = polluter, too. Flying isn't great, either. (Sightline Institute)

Who wants to be followed by a big cloud of pollution? It’s not just climate emissions, by the way—light trucks (the category that includes SUVs) can spew out three times as much smog-causing muck, too. SUVs are as aerodynamic as bricks; they consume, on average, more than six miles per gallon than a family station wagon with the same carrying capacity.

The Pathfinder gets 21 mpg overall (19 city/26 highway), which is good for its class, but hardly stellar. Fuel would cost me $1,750 per year, and its federal fuel economy and greenhouse gas rating is just 4 on a 10 scale. Not a Greenpeace-mobile, then.

The American Lung Association (California chapter) just released a report claiming that “over-reliance on petroleum-based fuels costs 10 U.S. states [those that follow California’s zero emission vehicle rules] $37 billion in health expenses and climate costs each year—with California costs alone hitting $15 billion.”

I just sort of fall into my old Miata. Bombs away. (Jim Motavalli photo)

“For the average driver, every tank of gas burned costs $18.42 in hidden health and climate costs,” says Bonnie Holmes-Gen, an ALA official. So buying an SUV involves more than just personal preference—society has a stake.

Safety is another issue. SUVs have a high center of gravity, and that makes them more prone to rollover—a 14- to 23-percent risk in single-car crashes (compared to 10 percent for most passenger cars). Of course, SUV drivers think they’re safer—it’s the whole  “looking down on the traffic” thing—which leads to a lot of over-confidence. The state police told me they find lots of SUVs off the road during snow storms for that reason.

Minivans with power sliding doors offer the best access--and better gas mileage, too. (Mike Petrucci/Flickr)

Back to Consumer Reports. It’s heartening that the magazine’s survey of vehicles that best accommodate seniors (based on 2014 models) offers a lot more than SUVs. There’s the Kia Soul (a funky little box); the Chevrolet Impala (much-improved in its current iteration); Toyota's Avalon and Camry (dependability personified); Chrysler 300 (snazzy looking) and Honda Accord (always a sensible choice).  

AARP also weighs in on this—and points out that ultra-high ride height is a killer for seniors, too. “Avoid low-slung sports cars and mile-high trucks and SUVs,” it says. “Instead, look to minivans, crossover SUVs and some sedans for good ease of access.” Minivans with power sliding doors make a lot of sense for people with access issues, though in my experience the doors can be trouble-prone on used vans.

So just because you have a bum knee doesn’t mean you’re sentenced to life in an SUV. I’m keeping the Miata (and looking for a good used Toyota MR-2 Spyder) on the theory—I believe, sound—that I only have so much more time in sports cars, I might as well enjoy them while I can.

Here's some Consumer Reports video about cars worth considering if the mind is willing but the flesh is weak:

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