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Car Seat Technology Gets Super Sophisticated

Massage, fragrance, heat and more fancy options are offered in many models

Interior of Honda Accord

Drive Images / Alamy Stock Photo

Many cars like the Honda Accord are offering features like 12-way adjustable seating to entice buyers.

En español | We should have seen it coming when Ford made massaging seats an option on its 2015 F-150 pickup.

Such seats have been around at least since the 1999 Cadillac Eldorado. But on a pickup?

Why not? Seats are yet another new way to boost automobile technology into ever-higher levels of sophistication, and it's easy to understand the appeal: Fancy equals profitable these days.  

With mainstream vehicle makers now bragging about their spa-like interiors, including six-ways-from-Sunday adjustable seating — well, 12 ways in Honda Accord (with heating and ventilation) and eight ways in Chevrolet Impala to cite two — premium brands must push farther to maintain their upmarket image and higher prices.  

Consider Mercedes-Benz, which has seats with six massage modes linked to specific interior lighting, and fragrances released from onboard vials. 

Choose from freshness, warmth, vitality, joy, comfort and training. (That one itself has three different settings: muscle activation, muscle relaxation and balance. And each of those has several variations.) You’ll be lucky to try them all before the lease expires.

“We’ve got an arms race going on with seat technology.” 

— Dan Edmunds, director of vehicle testing at Edmunds.com

As if that were not enough, the system plays what it considers appropriate music for the massage setting, based on a song's beats per minute.

Lincoln has a 30-way (yes 30!) power-adjustable seat in its newest Continental, Navigator SUV and — next year — the Aviator SUV. Well, there are 28 ways the driver can adjust them, and two more that adjust automatically with the driver settings.

You like to drive with one leg stretched forward, the other tucked back? Power up one half of the thigh support and not the other. Need the headrest to back off your ponytail? Tweak the tiny area at the bottom of the proper control.

“We’ve got an arms race going on with seat technology,” says Dan Edmunds, director of vehicle testing at auto research and information site Edmunds.com. (He’s not related.)  

Audi offers heated and cooled seats with five massage modes. Cadillac, Jaguar, BMW, Bentley, — the whole rogue’s gallery of upscale machines — offer heating, cooling and massage (sometimes in back, too, for the benefit of those who have chauffeurs while the owner rides in back).

Some brands are beginning to heat other surfaces — armrests, console lids and the like. 

And development is zipping along on seat controls tied to your smartphone. Wave the phone to have the system measure your size and arm reach, key in some other preferences, and, voilà, you’ve adjusted your car’s seat with your phone.   

The reason for options that once would have seemed absurd is to encourage shoppers to choose one brand over another, of course, and to pay more for those oh-so-marvelous seats. The result is better "showroom appeal,” Edmunds says. But, he cautions, “Lots of adjustments don’t guarantee comfort.” 

Nor do "massaging" seats provide a massage in the traditional sense. They can, however, alleviate pain caused by prolonged sitting. 

Ford, which kicked off this competition with those 2015 F-150 pickups, certainly sees it that way.

“Truck customers spend a disproportionate amount of time in their vehicles. The massaging seat features keep drivers and passengers both alert and comfortable on a long drive, by reducing muscle fatigue and promoting blood flow,” explains Ford truck spokeswoman Samantha VanHoef. But be careful what you call them. In the F-150 and, newly, in some Super Duty models, Ford calls them “active motion” seats.  

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