Easy Rider

By Hannah Wallace May 31, 2007

Auto writers are drivers. They rarely ride in a tested vehicle as a passenger. I rarely did until surgery took away my driving privileges for a month. Suddenly, I was in the right front seat.

It made me think: What are the best vehicles in which to ride as a passenger? They won't always be the same ones I praise from behind the wheel.

A passenger will judge a vehicle using different criteria. For instance: Throw the 0-to-60 time out the window. Ditto for G-force figures during cornering. As a passenger, I don't want my driver hurtling the car into a corner at breathtaking speed or flying up behind other vehicles and slamming on those heavy-duty, anti-lock brakes. That would be upsetting.

As a driver, I like feeling I'm "one with the road." As a passenger, I don't even want to know if the road is paved or dirt. What road? I've got wounds here that hurt! I want to float above it all. On a mechanized cloud.

As a driver, I want all controls within arm's reach. As a passenger, I want to voice-command the navigation system, watch a favorite movie on a flip-down DVD player, and listen to satellite radio through a gazillion speakers.

I thought about this as my wife drove me from doctor's office to doctor's office, to stores for needed purchases or on rides just to get out of the house. What made me comfortable—or uncomfortable—in the right-hand seat where the co-pilot sits in this country?

Begin with the seat. Small cars cannot give me the legroom I need to be completely comfortable. And I don't need some 16-way adjustable bucket seat that pinches my rib cage and squashes my thighs as those in some sporty cars do.

Fortunately, the last week of test riding was in a 2007 Mercury Grand Marquis. This is a full-size car that my 85-year-old cousin, Mary Agnes, would covet. She demands a column-mounted shifter and three-across seating, front and rear. It's a great passenger car, too, and for years has been the best-selling car in Florida.

Now, if we talk back seats, I can recommend Jaguar's long-wheelbase models. I test rode an XJR model at almost $90,000 that had a TV set in each front headrest and drop-down picnic tables for my food and beverages in the back of each front seat. I had my own climate controls back there. I had my own sun visors.

Among sport utilities, I certainly had one of the best that I couldn't drive. I was a passenger all week in a Range Rover LR3 HSE. It was $56,100, but a very fine vehicle in which to flee Armageddon as a passenger. I was high off the ground, so my visibility was good to correct my wife's flawed driving. The seat was a tad hard, but I could cross my legs in the footwell.

I also had a part-week in a Lexus LS460, with a new V-8 engine and an eight-speed automatic transmission, the world's first. This is the Lexus you see on television that can park itself. What a marvelous thing for the post-op patient for whom turning one’s head is painfully difficult.

As a passenger, this $71,372 Lexus is as good as it gets. Solid comfort, great ride. No vibrations enter the cabin. And it's very quiet in that front seat. The headlights turn with each turn of the front wheels. The Mark Levinson sound system is tops. And when the sun shined brightly, I could cool off with my air-conditioned passenger seat.

Hard to believe, however, is the right rear reclining passenger seat, complete with an ottoman leg rest. This seat is also heated or air conditioned, and the motorized DVD monitor that swings down from the roof can be remotely controlled. To top it off, the seat can massage a passenger's back with eight tiny, built-in air bags. This is, quite simply, the most remarkable car I've ever ridden in. I'm sure it's probably fun to drive, too.

Here's a quick guide to finding comfort as a passenger:

* No trucks. No truck-based SUVs. No Jeep product. Nothing, in fact, that requires climbing up into the passenger compartment.

* Small cars don't cut it. And that includes all sports cars, particularly difficult-to-enter ones like the Corvette. Stay away from any car you must drop into. They're cramped and visibility often is sacrificed. My wife-chauffeur constantly complained about a two-seat Jaguar with a long hood and poor rear visibility. I didn't like riding in it because it was rough and cramped. It was expensive, too.

* German cars are drivers’ cars. Passengers have pull-down straps to hang on to. Exceptions: the Mercedes-Benz S class and the long-wheelbase BMWs and Audis.

* Big American Lincolns and Cadillacs are great from the passenger seat. But only the biggest cars. Forget the sports models and SUVs.

* Asian cars are now making the advances in passenger comfort and safety. Everyone follows Lexus, Infiniti and Acura.

* Safety is paramount. You want side air bags and head curtains at all passenger positions, front and rear.

* Look for cars with a continuously-variable automatic transmission. Very smooth. Buy every comfort option available for the vehicle of your choice.

* Save the planet. A Toyota Prius is reasonably comfortable. So is a Mercedes-Benz Blutec diesel.

Robert C. Bowden produces The Car Place, a Forbes Best of the Web selection, and can be reached by email at [email protected]

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