7 Nov 2014

The Perfect Driving Position

When I drive cars and then write about them I tend to bang on about the positioning of the seat and controls more than other reviewers do.  

I don't know why others don't so much because, for me, getting the perfect, or as near as dammit, driving position is hugely important.

My mum was 5 foot 3 and drove around in her yellow Mini Metro with the seat pulled all the way forwards whilst perched on a cushion.  This was great for us kids in the back because we had some legroom.

When I was younger I knew a chap who was six foot 4, and he drove a Rover Mini. He was all bent arms and his knees were up each side of the steering wheel.

Thankfully modern cars are built a bit more for those of differing sizes, but not much better. I'm 5 foot 10 so pretty average and still the driving position on most cars is defective in one way or another.

I blame the short arses.  Most superminis and city cars are designed for women to drive, who are, on average, shorter than men.  Similarly China is a hugely important market for many sports cars and luxury cars, particularly SUVs, and the average Chinese man is 5 foot 5.

Car makers nowadays do their best to build cars to suit a range of heights and as such their cars are a compromise.  Also, safety features such as crash structures impact on some areas.

So we get shallow footwells and pedals quite close to the driver, adjustable seats and steering columns to accommodate everyone, yet they don't perfectly suit anyone.

Take the Toyota Yaris I just drove. I had to push the seat back so my 43 year old legs weren't too bent and my ancient ankle didn't have to sit on the throttle pedal at too acute an angle and therefore start hurting after 5 minutes.

The perfect steering wheel position is when you can rest your wrist on the top of the wheel but this wasn't possible because the steering wheel had about 3 inches of reach adjust.  So I had to push the seat forwards a tad to reach the wheel and the pedals.  Which made my ankle hurt.

My own car is almost perfect. It's a an Audi TT and therefore a coupe and therefore has the best position. The seat is low down, the footwell is nice and deep and the wheel adjustable so it is in just the right place.  But the gearstick is too far forwards and I have to reach to change gear.

Some cars get things almost right then balls it up with some minor issue. The Alfa Giulietta has a  position that's almost spot on. Ideally the brake should sit about one inch higher than the accelerator but in the Giulietta they're the same height which makes everything feel very wrong.

The Mercedes B-Class gets it wrong spectacularly on two fronts.  The brake pedal is far too high above the throttle pedal and the steering wheel comes out of the dash too high up.

My old BMW E36 had a floor hinged accelerator. This is OK if the seat is almost on the floor, as in a coupe, but it wasn't.  Because the foot comes down at the pedal at a higher angle more pressure is required on the pedal and this impacts on the lower part of the thigh as pressure is put on it. If I drove for more than 15 minutes in it I got deep vein thrombosis and my leg went blue.

The Maserati GranTurismo is almost perfect. Almost.  The steering wheel comes out of the dash at too high a position.  The Peugeot 208 has the clocks above the steering wheel so you have to set it too low to see how fast you're going. In the Mitsubishi L200 you need long arms and short legs to drive the thing.  The Honda Civic has nowhere to out your left foot.  The list goes on.

There are only three cars I've ever driven with absolutely perfect driving positions.

The first is the current Range Rover.  The seat is high enough from the floor that your feet sit perfectly on the pedals, the seats adjusts to fit anyone, the steering wheel is just right and there's somewhere to put your left foot.

The second is all Lotuses.  Lotus appreciates driver comfort and provides a perfect seat and perfect controls. Despite being quite firm I could drive all day in a Lotus and not feel a single twinge of pain or discomfort.

The third is the Porsche 924, 944, 968. The steering wheel doesn't even adjust but you sit virtually on the floor with the steering wheel in such a perfect place that anyone get supremely comfortable in one, the footwell is deeper than in almost any other car and the gear lever is just where you want it.

So it can be done, it's just that most modern car makers can't be bothered to give us the perfect driving position.

By Matt Hubbard