Zero “Plop” Factor: Best Cars for Senior Drivers – and Passengers

Some cars are too tall. Some are too low. Some are just right. Here's how to find the best cars for senior drivers or passengers - and to avoid the dreaded plop factor.

Helping Seniors Best Cars For Senior Drivers And Passengers
Helping seniors! Photo: Shutterstock

Does your car have a “plop” factor or require a step stool? 

My husband is a home healthcare worker, and if there is one common factor he has noticed among his senior patients, it’s that many of them belong to multigenerational families who live under one roof. While that isn’t the case for everyone, you may find yourself with more and more opportunities to provide rides or helping to choose the best cars for senior drivers or passengers, like me.

If so, which cars work best in these situations? What type of seating configuration meets everybody’s needs? What about trunk or cargo space? Life is full of the unexpected, so even if you never expect to find yourself living with your extended, senior relatives, it also never hurts to be prepared.

Driving Tips Mom Grandmother Best Cars For Senior Drivers

My mom and grandma taught me a lot about driving. Photo: Natalie Merola

My Grandmother Took Care of Me; Time to Return the Favor

I live in the same town as my 88-year-old grandmother. She no longer drives herself, so is dependent on others to take her shopping or to doctor’s appointments and other places. Sometimes that responsibility falls on me, but she also has a good network of other friends and family who help out, as well. 

A few months ago, my sister was in town. We had a plan to go to a local park and hang out where our nephews could play. Grandma was coming along for the ride. As I turned the corner and pulled into Grandma’s driveway, my sister was trying to help her into her rental car: a Ford F-150, minus the running boards.

So desperate was the situation that my sister was looking for a step ladder to help Grandma climb into the truck. Bear in mind Grandma needs a walker or a cane to get around. Fortunately, I showed up in my Audi Q3, which I had owned for about two weeks at the time. The passenger door swung wide, and Grandma was able to ease herself into the front passenger seat. 

The Cr-V Has A Generous Amount Of Legroom For A Compact Suv_ Photo By Allison Bell

The Honda CR-V has a comfortable ground clearance for getting in and out of the car. Photo: Allison Bell

Eliminate the “Plop” Factor

Previous to my Audi, I owned a Lexus IS 250, which rode really low to the ground. While grandma didn’t exactly have to “climb” into it, it was a long way down to that front passenger seat, where she often “plopped.” Not exactly ideal on 88-year-old bones. 

The Q3 proved to be like Baby Bear’s porridge: just right. Grandma was able to slide right in without the need to climb up or plop down. Other people who help her out with rides own either a minivan or another small SUV, like the Toyota RAV 4. I consider these “zero plop factor cars” ideal for someone like Grandma to get where she needs to go comfortably.

Mazda Cx-5 Compact Suv

There’s enough storage space in the Mazda CX-5 compact SUV for whatever you might need to bring along. Photo: Elizabeth Blackstock

What Other Factors Should You Consider?

Plop factor aside, other questions you might want to ask yourself when thinking about multi-generational driving situations might include: 

  • Is there enough cargo space for items like walkers, crutches, or oxygen tanks? 
  • Would there be enough space for those things plus luggage if you went on a road trip?
  • If road trips are a regular thing, would you want a roof rack or hitch carrier? What about bringing along a scooter or wheelchair?
  • Do the doors open wide enough for senior citizens to easily access both the front and rear seats? If your senior relatives are anything like my grandma, they want to maintain as much independence as possible (and who can blame them?), so making it easy for them to move through the car on their own might be important.
  • Is there a grip bar or handhold for them to hold onto when they get in and out of the car?
  • Who else will be driving this car? Does it meet their needs, too? Memory seats might be a nice feature for a shared car where the senior is still driving.
  • Size: Do I need a full-sized third row? Captain’s chairs vs. a bench seat for the middle row? What does that mean for accessibility?
  • If you’re considering an SUV, what about the rear liftgate? When open, is it hard to reach up and close it? Does it come with a power or automatic option? Is the liftgate height adjustable?
  • What about comfort? Most of us like a comfortable ride, but this could be something that might be considered an absolute must for seniors with achy bodies and stiff joints. Maybe they need a seat that is firm and supportive. Maybe they’d prefer something big and plush.
The Comfortable Front Passenger Seat In The Compact Suv Toyota Rav4.

The comfortable front passenger seat in the compact SUV Toyota Rav4. Photo: Cindy Richards

Cars That Fit the Bill

SUVs with a ground clearance of 7″ – 8″ are great because they have the most comfortable “hip point,” or the point at which the average person’s hips rest in the seat of a car compared to their standing hip height. This equates to a car that is easier to get in and out of. My Audi Q3 has a comfortable hip point; other cars in this category include most compact and mid-size SUVs, such as the Honda CR-V, Kia SportageJeep Compass, Chevy Equinox, and Mazda CX-5.

While not as high as most SUVs, many electric cars also have a higher hip point due to the space the battery pack takes up under the car’s frame. The Mustang Mach-E, VW ID.4, Nissan Ariya and Hyundai Ioniq 5 all have about 6′ of ground clearance.

The drawback to many of these cars, of course, is space. The rear cargo area of my Q3 was fine for my grandma’s folding walker, but start adding other things, and I’d be playing a game of giant Tetris.

Mid-size SUVs like the Toyota Highlander and Honda Pilot are nice because you have a third-row option that can come in handy for short jaunts when the whole family is going somewhere and extra cargo space when you need it.

Full-size SUVs like the Ford Expedition or Jeep Wagoneer offer lots of room but require a bit of a climb that can be hard for some seniors. Running boards would be a definite must in these situations.

Minivans are always a great alternative – think big sliding doors and low step-ins with high ceilings. 

If minivans and SUVs just aren’t your thing, many seniors are comfortable in roomy full-size sedans, such as the Toyota Crown, Chrysler 300, Dodge Charger, or Genesis G80, though sedans are becoming a rare thing. 

Helping Seniors Best Cars For Senior Drivers And Passengers

Helping out often means finding the best cars for senior drivers or passengers. Photo: Shutterstock

One Last Bit of Advice

Finally, I asked my husband what advice he would give to his senior patients. In true physical therapist fashion, he said, “After recovering from surgery or a hospital stay, I always tell them to pretend they’re 15 years old and take their car to an empty church parking lot and practice.” Then he added, “They should drive cars that they don’t have to climb up or drop down to get in.” 

Zero plop factor. Ha!

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Cindy is a life-long car enthusiast who began writing about cars in 2001 for As a kid, she... More about Cindy Stagg