Tall Drivers: Less leg room in SUV's and full-size trucks
The average entry-level and premium compact car has more front-seat legroom than the average full-size SUV, full-size pickup and full-size minivan.
Extra Interior Space
Many buyers opt for SUVs and full-size cars to get more interior space. But much of that extra space accommodates rear-seat passengers and cargo room. That can make it difficult for tall drivers to get comfortable in big vehicles.
The average entry-level compact car has 42.1 inches of front legroom, while the average full-size van has 40.6. Some of the biggest SUVs, such as Hummer H2 and Ford Excursion, have less front legroom and headroom than the Scion xB compact car from Toyota.
The findings come from research on legroom and headroom for every vehicle on sale. It was done for USA TODAY by the Power Information Network, an affiliate of J.D. Power and Associates, and by Edmunds.com and CarsDirect.com.
Renting a smaller car
Dave Watkins, a frequent traveler from Springfield, Ill., says he initially laughed when a rental car clerk suggested he could get his 5-foot, 11-inch frame into a Ford Focus compact car.
"I loved the car. I'm a big guy, and getting into something that looks like a golf cart is surprising," says Watkins, who turned down a company car because at the time it was a Chrysler Town and Country minivan, "and the driver's side sliding door hardware hit my head on bumps."
"You have to give designers credit for putting so much front legroom in compact cars," says Tom Libby, a data analyst with Power Information Network. But "they don't seem to design a lot of front legroom in their full-size trucks."
Libby thinks automakers who are putting third-row seats in full-size SUVs want to leave legroom so the far-back row doesn't feel like it's for kids only.
Accommodating Soccer Moms and drivers under six feet tall
Automakers are offering adjustable gas and brake pedals, adjustable steering wheels and height-adjustable shoulder belts to accommodate short and small drivers. Extended versions of luxury sedans have more rear-seat room to pamper the well-heeled passenger but not the driver. No automaker offers an option that allows the driver's seat to move back farther than normal to accommodate tall drivers.
Automakers must consider an array of factors when deciding how much seats can move back and forth, such as air bag deployment and intrusion into the rear-seat area, says Ed Welburn, General Motors design chief.
"The actual numbers may not tell the total picture," Welburn says. "A lot has to do with perception. The vehicle does not feel cramped. The way the seat feels - the height of the seat, the headroom - has a lot to do with the perception of room."
Rick Waggoner, GM CEO, and Bob Lutz, GM's head of product development - both taller than average - say they urge GM designers to accommodate tall drivers.
"I want to be able to drive the new Corvette and the Pontiac Solstice," Waggoner says of the two sports cars.
Maximum front legroom and headroom is measured by putting the driver's seat in its lowest and farthest back position, says Steve Ezar, manager of government and industry standards for the Society of Automotive Engineers.
Automakers design the front seat to accommodate a person as tall as 5 feet, 11 inches. About 95 percent of U.S. drivers are that height or shorter. But that means that drivers over 6 feet tall often can't get the seat to slide back far enough to feel comfortable.
Professional basketball players have had legroom problems for years, and a few custom auto shops on the West and East coasts cater to them.
One is 310 Motoring in Los Angeles, owned by NBA player Chris Mills, which often pulls out a car seat and builds a longer track so that it can slide back to accommodate tall drivers.
Most of the vehicles being customized for the additional front legroom are SUVs, says Greg Chang, manager of 310 Motoring.
"We put seven-footers in trucks all the time. We can rebuild the tracks, take some of the padding out of the seat and make an exact replica of the original seat."
[PLEASE NOTE: If you remove the driver's seat from the rails mounted on the floor and reposition them or the seat itself you may alter the effectiveness of the vehicle's safety features and nulify the manufacturer's warrenty and/or your insurance policy. This might be the case even if the dealer suggests it or makes the modifications for you. Please consult both the vehicle's manufacturer and your insurance carrier before conducting any modifications that remove the driver's seat from the tracks bolted to the floor.]
Automakers are starting to pay attention to tall drivers, says Gary Vasilash, editor-in-chief of "Automotive Design & Production." "They are sculpting the door panels to provide more arm room," he says.
"But it's tough to design an interior for the biggest of people," he says. "You have the question of the trade-off between the front-seat passenger and the rear-seat passengers."