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Sleek Car vs. Safe Car

Automakers wrestle with design and safety features

When Barry Maher, 62, was looking to replace his Ford Taurus, he decided to buy a Honda Accord for its reliability. But as he started tooling around the roads near his home in Corona, Calif., he found that it was much harder for him to see out the windows than with his 2001 Taurus. “My neck doesn’t swivel like it used to, and I need all the visibility I can get,” says Maher. Worse, the Accord’s domed hood makes it impossible for Maher to see where the front ends, so pulling into a parking space becomes a “guessing game,” he says—and it’s not a very fun one.

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Auto designers have been giving the public what it seems to want with ever-sleeker designs for new cars, but sexy isn’t always as safe. The boxy cars of decades past died with the advent of computer-aided design programs, and they took their big, panoramic windows to their junkyard grave.

With every new model year, the driver’s view gets more restricted on more models, making it harder and harder to see out the windows. Less glass simply means it’s more difficult to quickly scan for obstacles. It’s a driving task that’s difficult enough already for anyone with a stiff back or neck, and designers say it’s only going to get worse as they juggle new elements of aesthetics, aerodynamics and safety, which can sometimes work against each other. Sleeker and sportier, for instance, usually means smaller, sloped windows. “There is clearly a compromise,” says Dave Sargent, vice president of vehicle research at J.D. Power and Associates.

“The more stylish a car looks, the less glass it will typically have.” The new push for aerodynamically efficient vehicles only exaggerates this shape.

All these design changes are a serious development for older Americans, since most of us lose flexibility as we age. As Sargent says, “Reducing the outward visibility doesn’t make the car less safe in an accident—but it could make you more likely to have one.”

Heavy metal

One key design culprit is something called a high beltline, which refers to the space just beneath the windows where the glass meets the metal body. The beltline has grown ever higher, encroaching on the window space. Short windows have the effect of making the roof appear lower, thus making the entire car appear sleeker. These designs also feature rounded roofs and fewer right angles to create a sense of seamlessness where the glass ends and metal begins, says Larry Erickson, chair of the Transportation Department at the College for Creative Studios in Detroit. But rounded designs pinch the windows even tighter and also make it more difficult to see where the front and back of your car end.

The trend of the high beltline doesn’t appear to be going anywhere. Max Wolff, director of Cadillac exterior design at General Motors Corporation, says consumers like all that metal surrounding them. “They feel safer, even if that isn’t necessarily the case,” he says.

And as quality becomes more comparable across vehicles, aggressive styling—once confined to sports cars—becomes all the more important to attract buyers. Indeed, older Americans care about style just as much as younger Americans.

J.D. Power’s 2009 initial quality study found that 45 percent of those 55 and older viewed styling as an important factor in choosing a car, about the same as the 48 percent under 55 who feel the same way. As for visibility? “That’s not what they’re after,” says John McElroy, host of the podcast "Autoline Daily." Designers “are after what can look the best.”

Slicing wind—and visibility

It’s not all about looks, though. The designs we’ve come to prefer happen to be more aerodynamic, which can be a boon to fuel efficiency. An aerodynamic design requires making the tail higher than the front to create a smooth wedge that cuts through the air. Designers hungry for any element that can result in energy efficiency gains are creating ever more dramatic wedge shapes, even though a higher trunk lid makes it more difficult to see out of the back.

Boomers are flocking to cars with these sleeker designs, such as the Acura ZDX and Honda Accord Crosstour, says Tom Mutchler, senior automotive engineer for Consumer Reports. They’re both stylish, large, five-door hatchbacks with spacious cargo areas intended for those tired of their SUVs but who still want to sit up high. Mark Phelan, auto critic for the Detroit Free Press, adds the Infiniti M56X and the Lincoln MKS to the list.

Phelan and Mutchler both give low marks to the 2011 Ford Taurus, considered a visibility bandit. A previous version of the Taurus had a large glass area and big doors, and you sat up high, but the redesign pinched down the windows, says Mutchler, “so it’s more like sitting in a cave.” The new Taurus and the Buick LaCrosse are “terrific-looking cars that push the visibility problem for sedans to an extreme,” he says.

Looks, of course, can sell. Ford’s automotive safety director, Jim Vondale, says the Taurus’ raised beltline is one of its most attractive features. Retail sales have more than doubled over last year, according to figures from June. “A lot of people find the design of the vehicle to be very appealing,” Vondale concludes, and much preferable to its boxy forebears. “One of the most interesting parts of motor vehicle safety is all the balancing that has to go on.”

While automakers say they’re able to accomplish the task of keeping the car safe overall, they agree that the process is incredibly complex. “There are always multiple things you’re trying to accomplish,” says Larry Erickson. “A person could be balancing dozens of requirements. That’s why it takes a lot of people a lot of time to build a car.”

Safety vs. safety

Ironically, several new safety requirements may reduce visibility even further. For model year 2012 vehicles, the pillars, or columns supporting a roof, will have to be stronger to prevent the top from collapsing in a rollover accident. That probably means thicker pillars on the sides of the windshield, which are already two or three times thicker than they were a decade or so ago, further restricting the driver’s visibility, says Autoline Daily’s McElroy. “They specifically block the driver’s view of cars or pedestrians that are coming out of side streets.”

The pillars “are a safety hazard themselves that make the car look chunky and clunky,” he says. GM’s Max Wolff says accommodating these new pillars is a daunting task. They’re supposed to contain air bags but not hinder visibility. “We can never compromise safety, but the balance between the various safety features and design creates an interesting challenge,” Wolff says. Hyundai, for one, is attempting to address the pillar problem by using high-strength steel to keep them thin, leaving room for more glass.

New pedestrian safety requirements present another challenge. Rules will require softer, rounded bumpers to dampen the impact to a pedestrian who is hit. And though this new design should protect pedestrians, softer bumpers won’t protect the vehicle itself as well as conventional bumpers, according to Jack Gillis, director of public affairs at the Consumer Federation of America and author of The Car Book. “This is a very challenging engineering tradeoff,” Gillis says. “Increased damage in low-speed collisions increases insurance costs for the consumer.” However, Gillis stresses that these new bumpers shouldn’t reduce occupant safety.

Another aspect of pedestrian-friendly regulations is that designers will probably have to raise the hood of the car even higher. Creating a pocket of air between the hood and the car’s engine block lets the hood crumple more easily in an accident, allowing it—rather than the pedestrian—to absorb the energy of the impact.

Electronics to the rescue?

With so many hurdles to achieving good visibility, manufacturers are relying on a host of electronics to serve as drivers’ eyes—from back-up cameras to blind-spot alerts. The rear-view camera is standard on the Taurus SEL models and higher, with a cross-traffic alert system, which warns drivers who are backing up of traffic in their path, as part of an optional technology package. But where they’re not standard, these technology aids are not inexpensive options.

Ford’s adaptive cruise control and collision warning with brake support, the system that allows the driver to set and maintain the speed and uses radar sensors to detect moving vehicles and warns the driver of a potential wreck, adds $1,195 to the vehicle cost. The back-up camera is standard on the Infiniti M56, but the blind spot intervention system is part of a $3,000 safety package. And, while technologies like blind-spot detection can help, they don’t substitute for the driver’s manual checks. Besides, electronics can fail.

All of which serves as a reminder to bump visibility up on your list of criteria when looking for a new car. Ask yourself whether you’d be comfortable backing out of a tight space at the grocery store, for instance. Better yet, try this during a test drive.

Some models to consider, according to Phelan, are the Honda Fit, the 2010 Volkswagen Golf, the Ford Flex and the Subaru Forrester. McElroy adds Kia Soul to that list. And Larry Erickson applauds European sedans such as the BMW 5 Series and the Mercedes E Class, as well as the Ford Fusion, Hyundai Sonata and Chevrolet Malibu.

Maher certainly plans to give more weight to visibility the next time he’s in the market for a car. Given where he drives, that may be sooner than later. “On Southern California freeways, it’s too easy for someone to sneak into your blind spot,” he says.

Julie Halpert, who has covered the car industry for two decades, lives and drives in Michigan.

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