Those glints of gray make it official: We're getting older. Not just individually, but as a nation.
According to information compiled by the Center for Disease Control (CDC), the 65-and-older age group is the fastest growing segment of the population. There are currently over 19.9 million older licensed drivers, a figure that represents over 10 percent of all licensed drivers. And this number is expected to grow. It's estimated that more than 40 million seniors will be licensed drivers by 2020.
Seniors have their own unique and varied set of needs when it comes to vehicles. The CDC reports that more than 60 percent of adults age 65 and over suffer from some "difficulty in physical functioning." Accordingly, choosing a vehicle that properly caters to each driver's specific challenges can make a big difference in overall comfort and, indeed, safety.
So which vehicles should car-buying seniors place at the top of their list? We've evaluated vehicles on the basis of senior-friendly features, as well as overall quality and performance. Here are our 10 favorites:
- Toyota Avalon: Prized for its roominess, the full-size sedan has long been a favorite of seniors. Our recent full-size sedan comparison test proved the stately Avalon is the best of the bunch. Its 280-horsepower V6 offers brisk, responsive acceleration, with smooth, quiet power delivery. Its cabin is roomy and luxurious, and a near flat floor in the rear allows three adults to sit in comfort. Materials quality is nothing short of Lexus-grade. Senior-friendly features include a standard tilt-and-telescoping steering wheel that makes it easy for drivers to optimize their seating position, and available heated power driver and passenger seats that cater to aching backs. According to statistics put forth by the CDC, over 26 percent of all adults over the age of 65 "have difficulty grasping." Those faced with this challenge will cheer the Avalon's keyless ignition. It allows drivers to start the engine without inserting and twisting a key in the ignition; instead, the engine is activated merely by touching a button, with the key fob remaining in the driver's pocket or purse.
- Ford Five Hundred: Though its 206-hp engine comes up a bit short relative to the competition, the Five Hundred offers a smooth, pleasant ride; you'll be impressed at how nimble this large cruiser is around corners. It also offers a tall seating position, facilitating easy entry and exit for those whose physical challenges make stooping and bending painful. A heated, power-adjustable driver seat with memorized settings for two drivers is standard, and adjustable pedals and rear parking sensors are available. "A backup sensor is a valuable tool, since people's depth perception begins to suffer with age," reports AAA spokesperson Paul Gonzales. Last but not least, the Five Hundred's trunk — which offers 21 cubic feet of storage — is the largest in its class, making the transportation of walkers, scooters and other mobility equipment a snap. If you like what the Five Hundred offers but want a slightly different look, consider its twin, the Mercury Montego.
- Toyota Prius: "Arthritis is the No. 1 cause of disability in this country," reports Marcy O'Koon-Moss, editor in chief of Arthritis Today magazine. "There are 43 million people with doctor-diagnosed arthritis, and another 23 million with chronic joint symptoms." The group hit hardest by this disease is seniors. The CDC reports that over 50 percent of men and over 40 percent of women age 65 and over are afflicted. The Prius has features designed to make life easier for those who face this challenge. Those with arthritis in the hands and wrists will be grateful for the car's buttonless, easy-to-move shifter; available keyless ignition system; and available touchscreen controls. Additionally, an optional voice command system permits voice control of features ranging from temperature adjustment to Bluetooth cell phone dialing. An available backup camera display makes parking easier, reducing the driver's need to twist and turn (a potentially painful undertaking for those with arthritis of the neck or spine) for a rearward view. And everyone will appreciate this hybrid's excellent fuel economy. It's rated 60 mpg city and 51 mpg highway (though real-world mileage is typically in the mid-40s).
- BMW 7 Series: A full-size luxury sedan, the BMW 7 Series comes drenched in equal measures of luxury and performance. Interior furnishings are plush, and a duo of available engines (a 360-hp V8 and a 438-hp V12) give the car abundant power. According to Arthritis Today's O'Koon-Moss, results from a poll taken by the magazine indicate that arthritis sufferers view adjustable seating as being "essential" for drivers living with the condition. For those who can afford the price of admission, the 7 Series fills this need magnificently, with optional heated 20-way adjustable front seats guaranteed to soothe even the sorest backs. Those traveling in the rear need not miss out on the comfort; heated power rear seats are also available. Like the Prius, the 7 Series features a shifter that's buttonless and remarkably easy to maneuver. Some drivers find the car's iDrive system a challenge to decipher initially, but it offers touchscreen controls that are a boon to those challenged with arthritis of the hands and wrists. Front and rear parking sensors are also available.
- Toyota Sienna: If you're the kind of golden ager who's forever transporting a gaggle of grandkids or driving a posse of friends to the bingo hall, you'll appreciate the roomy Sienna. Available in seven- and eight-passenger seating configurations, this minivan totes multitudes — and it does so in style, thanks to surprisingly upscale accommodations. Senior-friendly features include an available rear backup camera. Best of all, the Sienna allows even seniors with significant mobility challenges to buckle up and drive. Its available Mobility Upgrade Package includes hand controls and a wheelchair/scooter lift.
- Pontiac Montana SV6: Are you a senior with a partner who has difficulty entering and exiting a vehicle? If so, you'll both rave over the Montana SV6. This minivan permits those riding shotgun to enter and leave the vehicle with minimum bother, thanks to an available Sit-N-Lift power seat that allows the right-side second-row passenger seat to be extended and lowered. Wheelchairs and scooters are easily accommodated thanks to a Mobility Prep option, which features split-folding bench seats in the third row and deleted second-row seats. Other senior-friendly options include rear parking assist and heated seats. For optimum driving thrills, we recommend equipping the Montana with the optional 3.9-liter V6.
- Buick Lucerne: One sedan gets listed time and again as a favorite of seniors and those with arthritis: Buick's LeSabre. "The LeSabre is a clear favorite among our readers," notes O'Koon-Moss. The LeSabre has been discontinued this year, but fear not; seniors will find plenty to love in its replacement, the 2006 Buick Lucerne. The full-size sedan — which seats six — betters its predecessor in almost every aspect, offering a noiseless ride, agile handling for its size and incredibly supportive seating. Options like heated and cooled seats and rear park assist are tailor-made for older drivers (though features like a telescoping steering wheel and adjustable pedals are a no-show).
- Honda Civic: The Civic offers a low-cost, no-hassle ownership experience that seniors will no doubt appreciate. Its excellent reputation in this regard has helped this Honda distinguish itself as an Edmunds.com Used Car Best Bet. Additionally, its compact size makes it a good choice for those who want a car that's easy to maneuver and park in urban areas. Senior-friendly features include a standard adjustable driver seat and tilt-and-telescopic steering wheel. Beyond this, the Civic offers a comfortable ride, easy handling and a winning combination of power and fuel economy from its assortment of engines. "Green" seniors will want the Civic hybrid, which boasts ultralow emissions and an EPA rating of 50 mpg city/ 50 mpg highway.
- Audi A8: The A8's interior is a Mecca for those who worship luxury. Wood and leather are in abundance, and the look is one of understated elegance. Audi's flagship sedan comes loaded with features designed to keep seniors smiling. Its Multi-Media Interface allows drivers to control everything from the navigation system to the car's air suspension with a simple-to-use knob and four large buttons. Keyless startup is available, along with ventilated/massaging front seats, seat heaters and four-way lumbar for all passengers. Best of all, superb handling makes the A8 feel more like a sporty sedan than a king-sized cruiser.
- Chrysler 300: Think full-size sedans are stodgy? The 300 will change your mind; with its sleek lines and singular front fascia, this Chrysler has a look that's both edgy and elegant. The car's standard features list includes senior-coddling goodies like a tilt-and-telescoping steering wheel and an eight-way-power driver seat. Power-adjustable pedals are available as an option. And best of all, when equipped with an available 340-hp V8, the 300 offers loads of fun behind the wheel, responding with an eagerness that'll leave even the most grizzled driver grinning like a pedal-happy teen. One caveat: Although the 300 is roomy and comfortable, seniors of shorter stature may find visibility problematic, due to the car's high beltline and short glass area. Make sure you try before you buy.
Copyright Edmunds.com, Inc. All rights reserved. First published on www.edmunds.com and excerpted with permission.