Possibly one of the most anticipated all-new car launches in the Philippines this year is the Toyota Vios. I can\'t say I\'ve driven it, nor even seen it in the flesh, but it looks like a winner, at least in pictures. It has a modicum of sportiness about it, doesn\'t look B-segment dorky, and will no doubt run on mechanicals that are easy to maintain and fuel-efficient, and have decent performance.
I actually have only one wish. I\'m crossing my fingers that the car will now have properly supportive and comfortable seats, particularly the driver\'s. A decent seat is one that you put your bum on and lets you reach the controls, but a great seat is one that keeps you secure in the turns, and has just the right balance of support and comfort to let you drive for hours. The current Vios has a passable driver\'s seat. You get on it, but don\'t expect it to hold you in the corners. You might also find yourself periodically stretching or fidgeting.
Great seats are hard to find in the entry-level class. The best I\'ve ever tried can be found in the Honda City/Jazz and the Ford Fiesta. Firmly padded, with good thigh support, the car seats are low enough to feel sporty, but not so low that you sit in a \"knees-up\" position. We have a 2005 Jazz in the family, and it honestly has better seats than my wife\'s 2006 Mazda 3. It seems to me that as you shrink a car for the segment, the engineers resort to ways to free up available interior space.
In the Mazda\'s case, which is a pretty small compact car, they freed up some room by shortening the seat bottom. So there\'s an illusion of legroom up front, but actually there\'s about two inches of unsupported thigh past the edge of the seat. And because it\'s unsupported, longer legs tend to splay everywhere as the feet rest on a spot trying to prop up the thigh. I stand 5\'8\" and can\'t find a comfortable seating position in that car; what more for the really tall people out there? Note that I\'m talking about the front seats, and primarily the driver\'s. Backseats are for another day.
The one thing I really miss with my old cars is the driver\'s seats. I had a 1999 Honda Accord, and it had a La-Z-Boy-comfortable driver\'s seat. I got it used, so the leather had been pretty much broken in. The leather was pliant and a bit loose in the butt-and-back area, and the cushioning was soft enough to let me relax without really sinking in. It also had adjustable lumbar support, which is a must for people like me with sensitive lower backs.
Back then, my daily commute was a three-hour round trip, and that seat made it a lot more bearable. Before the Accord, I\'d had a 1996 Mitsubishi Galant. Mitsubishi knew how to make sporty seats even back then (at least for its cars), and the Galant\'s was wide and firm, but had subtle side bolsters and decent lumbar support. The Elantra I drive today has good seats. They\'re not really exceptional, but they get the job done. I sure wish I had adjustable lumbar support.
Moving up the price range, one of the things you should expect--especially if you\'re buying European--is an excellent seating position. It\'s a reality that luxury cars costing P2,000,000 and up may not necessarily have the biggest, baddest engines compared with their counterparts across the world (blame the tax), but the least you can expect is a great seat. My perennial favorite is the BMW 3-Series. It is firm, has fairly aggressive side and thigh bolsters, and in some cases has adjustable thigh support. Mazda probably took a page from the Bimmer handbook of seats, since the one in the Mazda 6 feels so much like a BMW\'s, however much BMW may protest the indignity of being compared to, well, a Mazda.
Most SUV and pickup trucks have so-so seats, with some exceptions. By far the best seats I\'ve tested are still the Honda CR-V\'s. They are all-day comfortable, and they feel like they\'ll retain their cushioning even after several years. A close second is the Subaru Forester\'s; it is just a little too wide to properly keep slim Asians centered when the road zigs and zags. I tried the Toyota RAV4 last month, and would have liked the seats because they had the thigh and side bolsters, but the cushioning was too stiff to really be comfortable. It felt like it had wooden inserts. The best pickup driver\'s seat goes to the Ford Ranger, which feels very sporty and supportive. It actually feels \"un-American,\" especially if you\'re used to the sofa-like seats of the Expedition and the old F-150.
The Ranger\'s seat makes me wonder if Ford took it from the Fiesta or the Focus. The least comfortable (at least for me) is the Mitsubishi Strada\'s. It sits you low on the floor, making you drive with your knees up. With SUVs and trucks, I find that a chair-like seat height works best, but still with proper support and cushioning.
Going back to the entry-level segment, as a driving enthusiast, think about how important a good driver\'s seat is to you. Since you\'re on a budget, you can\'t expect the usual power-adjustable seats that spoil shoppers buying bigger cars. So you have to go with what you\'ve got, manual adjustments and all.
Brochures don\'t really talk about it, and the sales executive would rather entice you with freebies and discounts, but that seat is where you\'ll be spending several hours of your life every day for as long as you own the car.
Sit down and feel where the seat makes contact with your body. Do you find yourself propping yourself up because there\'s no lumbar support? That\'s going to hurt on longer drives. Are your thighs fully supported or is there space just before the knee? That\'ll make your legs splay out. Bounce around on the seat and try to press your butt down. Do you feel anything solid? If you do, chances are you\'ll feel the springs digging holes in your back and bum after several years of use. Finally, shift your weight from side to side and see if the seat sides or bolsters try to keep you centered. Things will get interesting for the wrong reasons if you try to go fast up or down a hill.
Even shopping at the entry-level, never settle for \"cheap seats.\" Your body will thank you for it.
Photos by Andy Leuterio