Advice to car makers: make a flexible sedan

This is a post I’ve been meaning to write for a long time.  My wife and I own two cars, both sedans: A 1997 VW Jetta and a 2002 Honda Accord. The Accord is a much larger car than the Jetta and it has the fuel economy that a larger sedan would have (mid 20’s in the city, upper 20’s on the highway).  Similarly, the Jetta has the fuel economy that a smaller sedan would have (mid to upper 20’s in the city, just over 30 on the highway).  However, outside of the comfort of the Accord, the Jetta is a far more useful car.

See, I’m a big believer in making your car stretch to do as much as it can as opposed to getting a vehicle that is way beyond your needs.  The classic example of this is the big SUV.  The average SUV family I know has two kids, takes a family vacation a couple times a year, tows a light load a few times a year, goes skiing a handful of times and that’s about it.  Since they knew they wanted to have lots of space for the family vacation, wanted to be able to haul stuff and be able to go through the snow, they went out and bought a big SUV with 4-wheel drive.

Instead of going that route, I buy a sedan, put a trailer hitch on it, buy a set of chains and if necessary a rooftop luggage carrier.  When we bought property above 2000′ we were going to buy a 4-wheel drive sedan, but we sold the property before we bought the car and the 2-wheel drive Accord was eventually purchased.  Nevertheless, this strategy saves me a bunch of money at the purchase time, a ton of money each year in gas and frankly I get a better car for my day-to-day activities including being able to get in and out of most mall parking spots in one smooth action.

However, because of this strategy I really have to make the most (my wife would use the term abuse) of my cars.  All the stuff that most people do with their SUV’s, I’ve got to do with my sedans.  I make big runs to the dump, carry Christmas trees, tow boats, get bulk supplies at Home Depot (like for a new fence), pick up large items like cribs at BabiesRUs and all kinds of other things.  And the more I do this, the more I realize that my Jetta is a far more useful car than the Accord.

And the reasons are simple: interior design and rear suspension.  While there is not much advice I can give about rear suspension other than “make it stiffer” there are a TON of things I can comment on regarding interior car design that automakers routinely over look:

  1. Seats fold ALL the way down: Almost all sedans have these days have fold down seat but frankly many don’t do it well.  Many of them either only fold 80% down or the surface is elevated above the trunk floor surface.  The result is that there is not a long flat surface which hurts my ability to haul long items.
  2. Width of fold-down seat opening: Almost all sedans have the rear seats just in front of the rear wheels.  Therefore, when the seats are folded down, the opening through the trunk is inherently limited by the rear wheel wells.  While the ideal solution would be to limit the size of the wheel wells or widen the width of the car, this is an extraordinary change beyond the scope of the changes I’m suggesting.  The reality is that many car artificially limit the width of the opening with stupid cutout and the such.  This opening should be maximized in size!  Ideally I’d like a full 48″ so that I could put a sheet of plywood in the car, but a full 36″ is a requirement… one that the Accord doesn’t meet and the Jetta, even though it is a narrower car, does.
  3. Height of the fold-down seat opening: The fold down seat has another problem: the height.  Usually there is a structural bar running across the opening at the top.  This is obviously important for safety, particularly in a side impact.  However, everything that could be done to raise the bar and keep it high (many have a curve) all the way to the edges.  A full 18″ from edge to edge is ideal.  Although the Jetta has nearly 18″ in the center it’s only about 14″ at the edges and it is one of the weaker aspects of the car.  However, because of item #2, the Accord doesn’t even get a chance to redeam itself here.
  4. Width of trunk opening: A lot of sedans these days have angled the trunk door to be narrower at the bottom than at the top.  This is just about the worst thing that has happened to sedans from a flexibility standpoint.  This significantly reduces ones ability to get big square items in the trunk.  They’ll fit once inside, but they can’t get in the trunk because the corners won’t fit past the bottom of the trunk.  This is an area where the Jetta excels as it’s trunk door is completely vertical and is about the same width as the #2 so about anything that would slide in would barely fit inside.  The accord stinks in this regard.
  5. Height above bumper of trunk opening: This is the last of the 5 “bookshelves” criteria.  All of the metrics so far affect how big of a set of bookshelves one could get in their sedan.  The issue here is that the bottom of the trunk opening is several inches above the floor of the trunk.  The result is that you can get the bookshelves in the trunk and past the rear seat opening, but you reach a place where you can no longer push the bookshelves in because the top of the bookshelves hits the structural bar in #3 because it is at an angle and not flat on the floor.  The higher the bottom of the trunk is, the worse this problem is.  Both the Accord and the Jetta do OK in this regard but not perfect.  Overall my “test” is if you can fit a 3′ wide set of 6′ tall bookshelves in the trunk (with seat down) of your sedan, your in good shape.  My Jetta can, the Accord can not.
  6. Total Height of Trunk Opening: This is another area where the cars have gotten worse.  I call this the “TV” criteria.  TV’s tend to come in fairly cube shaped boxes (tube TV’s anyway) and so they’re tough to fit in cars.  The measurement that tends to be the deciding factor of whether they’ll fit is the distance from the bottom of the trunk opening to the front of the opening by the rear window.  The big thing that has made this worse is the increased roundness of the rear windows of cars.  If you open most trunks, you’ll notice that there is a large curvature to the trunk opening at the top by the rear window,  As such, there is actually MORE distance from the bottom of the openings than at the center.  In the Accord this curvature is a killer and I’ve had a number of items that wouldn’t fit but would have if the rear window had been closer to flat (thus removing the curvature at the trunk).  Again, I can actually fit a larger “TV box” in my Jetta than in the Accord despite the fact that it has a far larger trunk.  Incidentally, list items #4 and #5 also affect the “TV” criteria so improving in those areas will also help this test.
  7. Fold Down passenger seat: This is one that the car makers seem to be catching on to.  I often want to carry long poles and the such in my car.  If I can fit them between the two front seat, I can usually get a 10′ item in either of my cars.  However, if it is wider than that opening (about 4″) then I am out of luck.  By being able to fold the passenger seat down I get a bunch of extra space for long items.  Neither of my cars can do this.

In summary, a sedan can do a lot of things… IF it is properly designed for flexibility.  It’s amazing what I can get in my Jetta.  I’ve had NUMEROUS occasions where I’ve come out of Home Depot with a big load of wood and pulled the cart up to my Jetta to be met by a group of laughing people who want to see the spectacle of me failing to get it into my car.  15 minutes later when the car is full of 40 fence boards, 4 bags of concrete (put in the back seat area for balanced weight) and all the other lumber for my fence, the crowd’s taunting turns to awe.  The same has happened with the iritated worker at BabiesRUS who has hauled the rocking chair to my car who assumes he’s going to have to haul it back inside when it doesn’t fit.  (Side note: deboxing large items can substantially help them fit into a car.)

But sadly, more and more sedans are being designed for looking cool as opposed to being functional.  The result is that they’re horribly inefficient space wise.  The result of that is that fewer and fewer people are driving sedans and trading them in for fuel-hogs that they don’t need 99% of the time.

One Response to “Advice to car makers: make a flexible sedan”

  1. Amy Says:

    I call my Jetta the SUJ!!! (sport utility jetta) It’s a sedan too.