Unicorn Hunting: Does this car exist?

Greetings! I’m shopping for a car that may not exist. My requirements list isn’t long, but it’s hard to find them on the same car.

1) Absurdly comfortable front seats. I’m 6’2" and get back pain whenever I drive any of my current cars for more than 30-60 minutes. I “only” weigh 190, but have long legs for someone by height.

2) Good winter traction. We live in rural New England and have a 400-foot sloped gravel driveway.

3) Great gas mileage. As you can tell from the fact that one of our cars runs on waste vegetable oil (see below), we care a lot about reducing emissions. This is actually more important, to us, than fuel savings. That is, we don’t mind paying $5,000 extra for a car that will save us only $3,000 in gas costs over the life of the vehicle.

3a) Manual transmission. I have never owned an automatic and I don’t like them. They have worse mileage and I don’t enjoy them as much (I also like how manuals force me to pay attention to my driving – neither my wife nor I have ever had an accident in over 30 combined years driving 5-speeds).

I’ve heard that the Prius has surprisingly good leg-room, but all our driving is rural – so a hybrid doesn’t seem like the right technology. I also hate automatics.

I have a friend with a 5-cylinder Volvo wagon – she says she gets 35 MPG highway. I haven’t tried driving it, but perhaps this is the best combo of the above choices.

I’m also looking at SUV options (Ford? Honda?), because I notice my back hurts a lot less in vehicles (like our pickup truck) with an ‘upright’ seating position.

I sat in my stepmother’s Subara Forester for a few minutes and I’m pretty sure the front seat is too cramped. Same with the few minutes I spent in a Toyota Highlander Hybrid.

For reference, these are our current/recent cars, and what we liked and didn’t like:

a) 1987 Nissan Sentra (2-door). My first car, but I soon realized that driving it was like jabbing an ice pick in my lower back. My father-in-law was a mechanic so we ripped out the front seat and drilled some more holes in the seat frame so that it could go farther back (to the point that no one could fit in the back seat). This was a great solution, but not one that makes sense for me any more.

b) 1996 VW Golf. Another great car. Suprisingly comfortable front seats.

c) 1999 Nissan Frontier Pickup Truck. Great reliable pickup truck, but somewhat cramped seating, and not a good all-around vehicle for a 3-person family.

d) 1999 VW Jetta Diesel, with a “GreaseCar” kit to run on waste vegetable oil. Starting to show it’s age – less reliable than the Japanese cars I’ve owned. Horrible winter traction, and less comfortable than the Golf.

e) 2000 VW Passat 6-cylinder. The weight helps gives this car much better snow traction than the Jetta, but it’s mileage is poor, and the front seat is the LEAST comfortable of any car I’ve ever owned. Alas, I didn’t notice this in the 20-minute test drive.

I would love feedback from other people like me, who’ve had trouble finding a comfortable car. I really wish the dealers would let me test-drive a car for a day (or a week) so I could truly assess whether the car was suitable for long drives.

Thanks in advance for any help!


i like ford better than honda, but honda is ok

They have worse mileage and I don’t enjoy them as much (I also like how manuals force me to pay attention to my driving – neither my wife nor I have ever had an accident in over 30 combined years driving 5-speeds).

most automatics nowadays offer as good, or better mileage(usually a 1 or 2 MPG difference actually) over the stick shift option(honda Civic for example). Also, some of the more comfortable cars will only come in automatics anymore.
If no dealership wants to let you test drive a car for an extended amount of time, try renting one for a day or two, or going to a different dealership.

It might not just be the upright back you like about some SUVs. It may also be the leg position. Try driving any car with power seats that adjust up and down. See if adjusting the seat up helps your back. You should not have a problem with headroom. I’m 6-feet tall but I have short legs (32-inch inseam), and I have no problem with headroom and high seating in my Accord, Regal, or Silhouette.

I feel your pain, believe me, I currently have a Saturn and thank God that auto-parts stores carry lumber supports. Unfortunately the lumbar support pushes you forward so you have less leg room. I had to rip out part of the console so my left leg wouldn’t hit it.

OK, so a Saturn SL (discontinued in 2002), the Ion may be better. I did drive a Ford Focus and it seemed to be comfortable. It was designed with the older generation in mind but seems to have been adopted by their grandchildren. Its seats are more upright and it has more legroom. Avoid the Corolla, great car that it is, it has no legroom.

we ripped out the front seat and drilled some more holes in the seat frame so that it could go farther back (to the point that no one could fit in the back seat).
That makes sense to me. You should be okay if your arms are long enough to reach the shift knob/steering wheel. Make sure you’re not sitting behind the b-pillar(seat belt mounting) that way it is possible the seat belt won’t work properly in an accident.

I think a 4 cylinder Ford Ranger or Mazda B-series with AWD might fit the bill. They get decent fuel mileage, they have upright seats (seeing as they’re trucks), and they can come with manual transmissions.

Also, maybe look for a used school bus. I know, they don’t have the greatest mileage, but they have very comfortable driver’s seats, some came equipped with manual transmissions, and a diesel bus will get okay fuel mileage. They are also dirt cheap.

I see you mention winter traction is poor etc. The key to excellent winter traction is not vehicle as much as the tires you select for it. Do your research on tires from tirerack.com and possibly forums specific to your car for what works and what does not. Buying an “all-season” or even M+S rating means nothing with regards to winter traction abilities.

If your buying used, dealers let you borrow a car for the day. If they don’t move on to another.

They let my wife borrow a brand new car for half a day to show me and try out. She bought it.

Save your back or save the planet, the choice is yours…

You should get great mileage with a modern automatic. Check out the upright seating in a Ford Five Hundred cum Taurus if you decide to accept the automatic trans.

A drive a 2006 Scion Xb (the toastery-looking one) for work and it’s pretty roomy, leg-wise and especially head-wise. The seats aren’t super-comfortble to my own personal tastes, but I’m used to big cushy old american car seats and I’ve been getting used to them. Plus you can probably change them out pretty easilly. Ours (an automatic) gets about 33-34 on the highway, although I understand the '08 model has a bigger engine and less toastery styling that may cut down on the mileage a bit. It’s definitely avaliable in a manual, although it is one of the odd cars where the automatic gets better than the manual.

I have your same back problem (sciatica), plus my right leg cramps behind the thigh if I drive anything with poor seats and no leg room for about 5 miles. So far I’ve found three cars that work for me: the Toyota Sequoia, the Audi A4 or A6, and the Toyota Avalon. All these cars require compromises. Fuel economy with the Sequoia is poor - I average 16.5 mpg overall. Audi’s have reliability issues. The Avalon is designed for 80-year olds. I own only the Sequoia. My wife drives a Pilot, which I dearly wish with all my heart would work for me, as it is a very good car (I drove an Acura MDX for 100,000 miles before my leg forced me to sell it, a decision I regret to this day).

I’m told some AWD minivans (Dodge, Chrysler) are good for leg and back problems, but… I haven’t bought American cars for decades now because they have been very poor in mileage and quality.

The GMC Acadia may be an excpetion, but we’ll have to wait and see for a couple of years.

This is always a problem for people who do not fit the 80% range size-wise. A very tall friend of mine asked me the same quetion a while back, and the only cars at that time I could find were a Volvo, a pickup truck, and the Chrysler minivan. He ended up buying the Volvo. Volvo is the only company I know with an ergonomic Physician on their staff. In Europe you would buy the least expensive Volvo diesel with a stick shift and get the best of all worlds. The old 242 Volvo had great seats. Road & Track magazine years ago had an article on the subject, and the Mercedes E Class, the Volvo and the Mercedes garbage truck!! came out best. No American car scored well; too soft, not enough support in the right places. Agree that for tall people, most Japanese cars are too cramped. Another tall friend and his tall son both have Dodge Caravans; they don’t care about the repairs record, they just want some comfort.

If you have the option of waiting one year or so, it will be best. After the clean diesel regulation, Diesels will be offered in regular full size pick up trucks and SUVs (1500 size). That will allow you to use it as a grease car. The next few years will be very exciting for diesel fans.