Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Small Car Shopping For Seniors

Denim 2015 Chevrolet Spark

Senior citizens often have a totally different subset of criteria when it comes to car shopping. Things younger generations take for granted, such as operating the lift gate, turning on the stereo or climate control, and getting in and out of the vehicle, can be make-or-break factors for car-buying seniors. We learned this first-hand while looking at cars with my 78 year old mother-in-law, Hermine this week.

Hermine currently drives a 1997 Mercury Tracer, aka, a Ford Escort, which has been a good little car for her. It’s simple, straightforward, and easy to operate. It has been reliable and frugal, although like most Midwesterners, she’s still fighting a losing battle against rust, courtesy of the salted highways and byways of Wisconsin. She has had several rust areas fixed and patched, which likely makes her Tracer one of the cleanest in all of the Upper Midwest. She’s meticulously maintained and repaired the vehicle, and it’s been serving her diligently since she bought it 1998.

And while she works hard at keeping the car from aging, she cannot prevent herself from getting older. At her age, she’s finding the compact Tracer to be hard to get into and out of, thanks to the myriad of aches and pains associated with getting older and the car’s low seating position. The combination of repairs, rust, and difficulty with ingress and egress made her (and us) decide to look at other automotive options.

Like many seniors, Hermine is on a fixed income and doesn’t want to spend too much on a car. The car also has to be good on her back, meaning it’s got to have a comfortable seat, be up high enough for easy entry and exit, but also can’t be too tall either. It must be easy to use. The fewer tech gadgets, geegaws, and doodads, the better. Bluetooth? Navigation? Touch-screen display? No, thanks! Additionally she wants to stay with a small car, as it’s just her in her small house and it’s what she’s used to. Plus, she rarely carries passengers. Finally, and this is an important one, she must be able to get the vehicle serviced locally. Her town of Wisconsin Rapids has Chrysler, Ford, and GM dealerships. The closest import dealer is at least a half-hour a way in Stevens Point, and she doesn’t want to have to drive that far for warranty work.

My wife, Mercedes, flew from Portland to visit her mom in Wisconsin Rapids last month. She and her mom made the 30 minute drive to Stevens Point to check out some cars including the Nissan Versa, the Toyota Yaris, the Honda Fit, the Ford Fiesta, and the Chevrolet Sonic. Of those vehicles, she liked the Sonic the best. Knowing there wasn’t a Chevrolet dealer in her town, Mercedes asked about service. The dealer, Len Dudas Motors, said their cars could be brought to the Buick or GMC dealers back in Wisconsin Rapids for service, since they were both part of General Motors. Perfect.

Fast forward to this week. We are in town for Christmas and decided to drive from Wisconsin Rapids to Stevens Point to visit the Chevrolet and check out the Sonic as well as its smaller cousin, the Spark, which just showed up on the lot.

First, she sat in Spark. She found it easy to get in and out of and comfortable on her back. Like the Sonic, it has a height adjustable seat, allowing for a just-right fit. This 2015 1LT model had the touch-screen, but we were told you could get the LS model without it. She was concerned the hatchback might be hard to close due to the liftgate’s height and weight, but she found it to be easily within reach, light, and simple to close.

We then went to a Sonic hatchback. She found it equally comfortable and a step up in interior materials. It was also $5,000 more than the Spark, the liftgate was taller and harder to reach, and after adjusting the rear-view mirror, she turned to me and said, “The rear window seems so small; it’s hard to see out of.” Plus, the rear seats’ headrests impede vision out the back. As a side note, she did look at the Sonic sedan, but decided she’d rather have a hatchback.

We revisited the Spark and discovered it yielded improved rear visibility compared to the Sonic. This is due in part to headrests that retract into the seat. She said she’d like to test drive it.

Our salesperson, Joe, was extremely accommodating. He drove all four of us in the Spark to a less trafficked part of the town so my mother-in-law would feel more comfortable driving the car for the first time. As with any test drive, it takes bit of time behind the wheel to get used to the way the car drives. The Spark’s brakes were much touchier (or possibly just better) than those on her 17 year old Tracer. But otherwise, she enjoyed driving the car, and she found it to be a good size for her. Despite being modern and techy, the gauge cluster is easy to read and simple, with the speedometer getting top billing. The HVAC is composed of a classic three-dial setup, so there isn’t much of a learning curve. The car has a CVT, and the shifter is just like the one in her Tracer. All positive attributes for her.

Our trip to the dealer was really an information gathering session. We weren’t ready to buy, but needed to check out if either of these Chevys would fit the bill when she’s ready to buy. As it turns out, the Spark is probably going to be the car for her (preferably an LS in the “Denim” color).

We’ve been big fans of the tiny Spark since its inception (we called it our car of the year in 2013). It feels more solid than you’d expect, it gets great fuel economy, and is simple yet modern. We think a Chevrolet Spark would be a great choice for Hermine thanks to its seating position, ease of use, and of course, price. Now comes the point where we decide the best way to buy (new vs used) and when to purchase. Regardless, we’re happy she’s found a car that fits her, literally.


hduncan2587 said...

Since she won't be having rear seat passengers, I'd fold the Sonic seats down to help free up some of the sight line. I'd have her see if she can work the seats just in case, though.

m1ckDELTA said...

I've had my 2014 spark since this past February. I live in one of the largest urban areas in the U.S. so a "city car" had to be, first and foremost, the essential design intention. I also like my road trips and camping, usually on a motorcycle, but I thought, "If I'm going to own a car...".

For anything outside the "city car" design intention I really thought I would go through a series of "Aha" moments wherein I would discover various shortcomings and learn to live with them. I have had many "Aha" moments indeed. They have not, however, been due to shortcomings. I have constantly been surprised by how versatile the can be. The Spark has performed better than expected handling tough urban traffic and parking, shopping excursions and general errands, joy rides and camping trips into the San Gabriel Mountains, road trips up and down the PCH, and the list keeps growing.

The gas mileage on any given trip has varied from 28-50 MPG and always seems appropriate for the given travel conditions. Trips involving 5500' elevation gain driving 40 miles up into the mountains or 1600' loss over 30 miles down to the coast will have very different fuel requirements. Sitting in stop and go traffic for over an hour hurts the worst, however. If I had to average it out I'd put the MPG at 36 in such an area as mine.

Andy Lilienthal said...

Thanks for the info m1ckDELTA. That's great feedback.

Unknown said...

I don't trust the reliability of the Spark. It's basically a Daewoo, and we all remember those. Neat looking little cars though. Most definitely will not be as reliable as that Mazda made Mercury Tracer. Good luck.