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New designs cater to needs of older buyers

Carol Cosner likes big cars.

The Pinellas Park woman went from driving Volkswagens when she was younger to big conversion vans and never looked back. Cosner coveted the high seats, the great visibility, the sheer sense of room the vans gave her.

So when she went looking for a new car last year, Cosner, 57, was thinking minivans. Until she got into the Ford 500, a midsized, midpriced sedan. She bought it on the spot.

Then her husband, Robert, 67, decided he liked the 500, too, and offered to trade her his van for her ride.

"She basically told me to get the heck away from her car," Robert said.

Like many older drivers, the Cosners have found that cushy, low-slung seats, stylishly small doors, arching instrument panels, racy mirrors and flush-mounted exterior door handles aren't as comfortable or easy to use as they used to be. And now they know they don't have to buy big vans to get what they want.

Drivers over 55 make up the fastest-growing segment of car buyers, and with baby boomers reaching retirement age, that trend will accelerate. So automobile companies are paying more attention to the aches and pains of older consumers.

The result is cars designed specifically for older drivers.

All major carmakers do it. But Ford's unique approach to teaching young designers and engineers to think like retirees works so well it has been adapted by the Boeing Co. to make its new 787 jetliners more elder-friendly.

While the special comfort of the new Fords isn't advertised as a feature specifically for older people - you don't want to turn off younger drivers or make baby boomers feel old - the company recognizes that paying attention to consumers over 55 is critical.

Demographics indicate the number of Americans between 55 and 74 will nearly double, from 40-million to 74-million, by 2030.

As people age, they tend to become heavier, less flexible, afflicted by arthritis and failing vision. Twisting a knob can be painful. So can lifting a door handle with arthritic fingers. Half turning in a car seat to check for traffic can be impossible.

But automobile designers tend to be in their 20s and 30s, with no idea how their grandparents feel.

So Ford puts its young engineers into a getup called the Third-Age Suit. A collar around the neck limits the head's range of motion. Padding on the back, shoulders and abdomen simulate weight gain. Braces at the major body joints, including elbows, wrists, fingers, knees, ankles and feet, stiffen the limbs. Thin plastic gloves simulate loss of the sense of touch.

Top it off with scratched yellow glasses to simulate cataracts, and you've turned a 30-year-old into a septuagenarian. Then they are told, "Get into that car now and tell us how easy it is to drive."

"When you're young and fit enough to leap out of a car without effort, it's hard to appreciate why an older person may need to (boost) themselves out of a car seat by pushing on the seat back and the door frame," said Jeffrey Pike, a former senior technical specialist for Ford. "But try leaping out when you're wearing this suit, and you really understand the challenges an older driver faces."

Eero Laansoo, one of the young engineers who has used the suit, calls it an educational experience.

"It's one thing to go to focus groups and listen to older drivers, but quite another to experience it," Laansoo said. "It mimics the way life will be when you're 30 or 40 years older. You never forget what it feels like."

The suits, unique to Ford among automakers, "are the kind of thing we view as a competitive advantage," Laansoo added.

They have been in use since the late 1990s. But since it takes several years for a design to make it from the drawing board to the highway, the models that incorporate elder engineering have only recently come to market. They include the Ford 500, a sedan, and the Freestyle, a cross between an SUV and a station wagon.

Larry and Mary Grieger of St. Petersburg bought a Freestyle because they were looking for a comfortable vehicle in which to make their annual trip between Florida and Canada.

"It's very easy to get into and out of, the controls are easy to find and use," said Mary Grieger, who says she is "well over 50."

Kay Jiretz, 66, and Margaret Bradbury, 71, ferry Fords among dealerships and to and from malls, auto shows and golf tournaments for Bill Currie Ford in Tampa. They have driven every vehicle Ford has on the highway. Jiretz knows what she likes, and it's not the shiny blue Mustang sitting on the new-car showroom floor.

"Years ago we would have loved the Mustang," Jiretz said. "These days, that's out of the question."

Bradbury said she is partial to the Freestyle because "it lets me sit up high and gives me very good visibility."

One of the improvements made in the Freestyle and the 500 to accommodate older drivers is a shallow rise from the floorboards to the door frame so knees don't have to bend so high to get in and out, and seats that are comfortable but flat and firm, allowing riders to simply slide in and out instead of boosting themselves.

Ford also is moving to replace flush-mounted exterior door handles because lifting them can be hard on arthritic fingers. The company is using "strap grips" now that allow individuals to wrap ahand around the handle and pull.

Ford also is developing a blind spot sensor system that will allow drivers to detect a car riding beside and slightly behind without having to turn the head and shoulders to find it.

Of course, you won't see any of this promoted in Ford's marketing or television ads, which focus on delivering the message that cars are elegant and roomy or sleek, fast and sexy. The company doesn't want to turn off the younger generation, which has no desire to drive grandma's car.

"But we use new designs in selling on the showroom floor, catering the pitch to the customer," said Shane Northway of Currie Ford. "You want to win over the older buyers because if you provide them with a vehicle in which they are happy and comfortable, they're going to be loyal to that nameplate."

Boeing was so impressed with the Ford program that it built three Third-Age Suits for its own engineers, who are assigned to wear them on hourlong commercial flights between Seattle and Spokane, Wash. Their reactions have been as profound as those of the Ford engineers.

"The engineers are given a list of tasks they must do during the flight, such as stowing a bag in an overhead compartment," said Vicki Curtis of Boeing's Payloads Concept Center in Seattle. "I weighted the bags with stacks of magazines. They hated me."

Most startling, Curtis said, was the experience of the engineers who design aircraft lavatories.

"Getting and using toilet paper when your hands are in stiff braces and your sense of touch is challenged by gloves is frustrating," she said. "So is using the flush button. They really picked apart the lavatory design when they got back."

The results, many of which will appear when the 787 enters service in two years, are newly designed lavatories, better lighting, and small steps hung under aisle seats to raise passengers closer to overhead bins.

"I keep stressing to people that we're not putting assist handles down the length of the airplanes and turning them into flying nursing homes," Curtis said. "We're designing airplanes for ourselves when we get older. We're not going to be decrepit, but we're going to be slower and less strong. And there will be more of us. We have to face up to that."

SLIPPING INTO SOMEONE ELSE'S SKIN

Ford Motor Co. has its engineers don the Third-Age Suit so their 20- and 30-something bodies can experience some of the problems faced by older drivers.

NECK BRACE: restrains the head and makes it difficult to turn

GOGGLES: Scratched, yellow lenses simulate cataracts

PADDING: on the back, shoulders and around the waist simulates weight gain

BRACES: restrain the hands, wrists and elbows

PLASTIC GLOVES: reduce the sense of touch

KNEES, ANKLES AND FEET: restrained to limit mobility

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