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How to Build a Better Car for Boomers

… Without letting them know

Cars for target customers

The walls are virtually barren except for four posters displaying photos of older Americans, each near a different prototype. There's Joseph, 64, smiling above a compact car. He's retired and living on a small pension. Near an SUV are Luis and his wife, Marta, both 65. They're retired with more disposable income to spend on a car, and part of the sandwich generation with children at home and aging parents of their own. Gunther, 60, is a practicing surgeon pictured with his wife, Eve, 59, next to an expensive sports car.

The compact car includes a front door that swings far back, to 150 degrees — completely out of the way — providing easy access. The obtrusive column called the B pillar, which splits the front and rear door openings on light passenger vehicles, is eliminated, so you can easily load and unload big items, like a surfboard or, as the case may be, a wheelchair. Seats also fold flat into the floor for even more space.

The SUV, a modified Saturn Vue, features a narrower doorsill — the strip of metal along the bottom of the door frame — making it easier to enter and exit the vehicle. The windshield is taller so you don't need to strain your neck to see a traffic light. In the back, the head rests automatically retreat into the seat when there are no passengers, providing better visibility.

The floor of the hatch space in the sports car is totally flat, providing an open cargo area that's easy to load. The car is designed to woo an active, vital older driver who "wants to relive their youth," says Wellborn. "We're providing a lot of help, but we're cloaking it in cool."

After a battery of focus groups, Wellborn says, "we believe we had a strong enough reaction that we needed to move forward aggressively." What that means in real terms GM won't exactly say, other than that these features, if adopted, could appear on cars as early as three years from now. Even then, Wellborn says, they wouldn't be touted as exclusively for older drivers.

Given the conventional wisdom of his industry, it's easy to see why.

Gearing up for the boom — slowly but surely

"You will never see us designing a vehicle that's only for people north of 60 or 70 years of age," says Klaus Busse, head of interior design for Chrysler Group LLC. Instead, like a lot of its competitors, Chrysler seems to be taking a piecemeal approach, slipping in features that older drivers may appreciate, but which don't necessarily label the entire vehicle as geriatric.

The 2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee, for instance, lowers itself to the ground at the push of a button, making it easy to enter and exit. A display shows speed in a large font, prominent grab handles make the doors easy to open, and five extra inches of legroom in the back is a blessing for anyone with stiff knees. "We have a boatload of features that are of value to these people," says Busse. It's just that they don't advertise that fact. He adds that he would be "proud" to see an 80-year-old driving the Cherokee.

Incorporating technology

At Ford, engineering standards must include drivers of all ages, according to spokesman Robert Parker. "Visibility, ingress, egress, operation of features, comfort, design are all taken into consideration," he says. But if "boomers don't want cars designed for old people," as he believes, how is Ford going to design a car for everyone? Technology is part of Ford's answer.

Parker points to the MyFord Touch infotainment system, which lets drivers use voice commands to operate everything from temperature controls to audio and a hands-free phone, as an example of a technology that older buyers will welcome, because they don't have to take their eyes off the road.

Toyota's national manager for advertising and strategic planning, Bob Zeinstra, says boomers "continue to buy us, and we want to continue to appeal to their needs as they grow older." The 2011 Toyota Sienna, whose average buyer is over 60, offers the option of the first factory-installed seat that rises and descends in and out of the vehicle for people who have difficulty climbing in on their own.

But do these specialized automotive designs miss the mark?

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