Product Reviews

Welcome to Consumer Reports.

We’re so glad to have you as a member. You now have access to benefits that can help you choose right, be safe and stay informed.

Smart retiree’s guide to buying your last car

How seniors can choose a good, safe car that will last years

Last updated: June 2014

If you haven’t bought a new car in a while, you may be in for a shock—and not necessarily sticker shock. Within the last 10 years, much has changed in the automotive world. Cars have become safer thanks to new technologies, such as electronic stability control and curtain air bags, and improved vehicle construction that has helped models perform better in insurance and government crash tests. These important changes are great news, but unfortunately, the down side is that cars have become much more complicated and distracting, with myriad innovations in controls and infotainment systems.

When you enter the dealership, you may be bombarded with so much information that it may seem overwhelming, but gadgets and technology aside, key considerations for seniors to consider are fit, visibility, comfort, ease of access, reliability, and safety. (See our list of best cars for older drivers.)

There are many great cars from which to choose. If you’re looking for what may be your final new car for retirement, you want one that can meet your changing needs while being rewarding and dependable. This guide can help, backed by our extensive new-car test data and exhaustive annual reliability survey.

Fit & comfort

The most important factor for older drivers is to make sure the car fits and can adjust to their shifting needs. “Many people buy a new car, just jump in it, and drive, and don’t adjust all the safety features to their maximum effectiveness,” says Julie Lee, vice president and national director of AARP Driver Safety.

CarFit, a program sponsored by AAA, AARP, and the American Occupational Therapy Association, holds events around the country to help older drivers assess proper fit in their car. A recent study of CarFit participants found the top challenges for older drivers included improper distance from steering wheel (59 percent), not setting up the correct view from the side mirrors (32 percent), improper seat height (28 percent), and improper head restraint height (21 percent). CarFit’s 12-point program aims to correct those issues and from its data, 97 percent of participants’ problems were resolved after going through the program.

CarFit is a helpful program to aid in fitting seniors to their existing car, but the lessons translate well to all shoppers. If you are buying a new vehicle, make sure you choose one with adjustable seats, lumbar support, and tilt and telescope steering wheel. Even if you don’t plan to live in a cold climate, consider heated seats, as they can soothe a sore back. Sit in the car and make sure you are able to see out the front, rear, and sides, especially since many new cars have swoopy styling that limits visibility. And make sure you can reach all the buttons and controls. If not, try another car until you find one that best suits you.

Besides fit, a car should be comfortable. Make sure seat cushions give good support and are firm and that you can easily reach the pedals but still have enough space away from the steering wheel should the air bag deploy. Sitting too close to the steering risks significant injury.

Access

A sporty car may be the dream many have for retirement, but because they sit lower to the ground, sports cars or roadsters are challenging to enter and exit. And that will likely get worse as the driver ages.

A traditional midsized or large sedan may work well, with wide door openings and ample passenger space, but the seats are typically low. Small SUVs such as the Ford Escape, Honda CR-V, Subaru Forester, or Toyota RAV4 often appeal because they are easy to enter and exit thanks to big doors and chair-height access. Larger SUVs are difficult to climb into because they are much taller. Another option is a wagon. There are several models that offer a raised height, such as the Kia Soul, Subaru Outback and XV Crosstrek, and Volvo XC70.

At the dealership, practice getting in and out of each vehicle you try. And check the rear seat access if you plan on taking passengers along for a ride.

Reliability

If this may be your last car, you want it to really go the distance. Having to deal with repairs and breakdowns is no picnic for any car owner but it’s more challenging for an older driver. Before you decide to buy, check out Consumer Reports’ reliability ratings to make sure the vehicle not only does well in our testing but can hold up over time. Also, see our report on making your car last to 200,000 for tips from owners who’ve made their car last. Holding on to a car for 10 years or more can save significant money, and your chances for affordable success hinge on the car’s reliability.

Safety

Modern cars have many safety features available, but most drivers don’t even know what is available and how best to use them. One of our favorites is a backup camera. Activated when the transmission is shifted into reverse, a video image is displayed on a screen in the center of the dash showing what is behind the car. This can be a great convenience when parking or hooking up a trailer, and it helps prevent backing into an obstacle or person. These are increasingly common and available as optional equipment. With rear visibility getting worse in new cars due to styling, head restraints, and structural design to enhance roof-crush protection, this is quite welcomed. And older drivers who may have limited flexibility will find this feature especially handy.

Another way to expand your visibility is a blind-spot-detection system that alerts the driver if a car is passing to the side in the blind spot. A light appears in the side mirror to signal a car is present. Some systems sound an alert if there is a car at your flank and you begin to turn, as if preparing to change lanes. Some models, notably Fords, include small convex mirrors added to a car’s regular side mirrors also help increase visibility of cars in other lanes. Similarly, lane-departure warning systems can alert a driver who begins drifting from his lane, and some can even make minor steering corrections.

Other notable safety features include cross-­traffic alerts that can detect cars approaching from the sides when backing up even before you can see them--quite helpful in a parking lot or driveway. And to the front, forward-collision systems can warn when you appear to be closing in on the car in front a bit too quickly. If a collision is deemed imminent, some systems can activate the brakes. Variations on this concept, such as City Safety from Volvo, are configured to watch for pedestrians.

New-found risks

Complicated control systems can be difficult to use, simultaneously introducing new features and challenging touch-screen interfaces. We found the Cadillac CUE and MyFord Touch to be the most distracting infotainment systems. But the Chrysler UConnect is very intuitive and easy to navigate, proving that touch screens can work well. Try before you buy, because you will end up living with this vehicle for hopefully many years to come. In some cases, you can choose a model with a more traditional stereo.

Bottom line

Buying your last car may be an emotional decision, but with careful, practical consideration to your changing needs, you’ll find there are many choices that can be the pampering, stress-free ride you deserve for retirement.

See our list of best cars for older drivers.



E-mail Newsletters

FREE e-mail Newsletters!
Choose from cars, safety, health, and more!
Already signed-up?
Manage your newsletters here too.

More From Consumer Reports

WASHING MACHINE REVIEWS
The Best Matching Washers and Dryers These washer-dryer pairs cleaned up in Consumer Reports' tests.
TV REVIEWS
Best 4K TVs to Buy Right Now The top picks from the hundreds of 4K TVs we've tested.
CARS
Best New Car Deals Save money on the cars that Consumer Reports recommends.
GENERATOR REVIEWS
How to Pick the Right Size Generator for Your House Add up the items you need to power before making your choice.

Cars

Cars Build & Buy Car Buying Service
Save thousands off MSRP with upfront dealer pricing information and a transparent car buying experience.

See your savings

Mobile

Mobile Get Ratings on the go and compare
while you shop

Learn more