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Most popular cars to drive into retirement

Retirees rewarding themselves with a new car should look for features that enhance driving safety, experts say.
Image: Toyota Avalon
The Toyota Avalon is designed to compete with large American sedans.Toyota
/ Source: Forbes Autos

Many drivers retiring from the workforce reward themselves with large, plush cars. But experts recommend careful consideration when choosing the ideal vehicle to drive into retirement.
Big cars have advantages like a comfortable ride and roomy interior. But their long hoods and large trunks can be difficult to see over.

"When you look at the data, older Americans of course like big cars," says Dave Melton, director of transportation and technical consulting for Liberty Mutual Insurance in Hopkinton, Mass. "They're smooth, they have a long wheelbase, they drive nicely, have lots of room for grandchildren, and carry the look of affluence. But my question is, 'Does the older driver fit with these cars?'"

A top consideration, experts say, should be how easy it is to see out of the car. In this regard, the large vehicles retirees favor have a disadvantage.

Still, many of the most popular cars for retirement make up for this problem with back-up cameras and sensors to help drivers gauge the distance to surrounding objects. Often they also have controls mounted on the steering wheel for quick and easy access to complicated functions. Such features are among those recommended by the AARP, an organization for people of retirement age.

"You need to be able to know where the front and the back of the car is," Melton says. "If you can't see that, you will find it hard to maneuver into a tight spot. I'm always concerned that older drivers aren't looking carefully at sight lines."

A dozen of the 20 vehicles on our list of retirement favorites are among the largest sedans available in the United States. The models are ranked based on the percentage of buyers age 65 or older, using data from the market research firm J.D. Power and Associates.

Topping the list is the Lincoln Town Car, with 75.9 percent of its buyers in that age group. Not too far behind are the Cadillac DTS, Mercury Grand Marquis, Buick Lucerne and Buick LaCrosse.

All five are large sedans, so their sight lines — how well drivers can see their surroundings from behind the wheel — tend to be more constricted than those of smaller sedans.

Go to the “slide show” link below to see the full list of top 20 vehicles with the highest percentage of buyers in retirement.

Dan Zeck, 84, a retired Ford salesman from Leavenworth, Kan., has been driving Lincoln Town Cars for decades. "I like the way they ride," he says. "And it's a V8, so it has a lot of power."

Zeck also prefers the gear shifter on the steering-wheel column, where it's been on Town Cars and countless Buicks, Cadillac and Fords over the years.

He is not alone in his loyalty to American brands. Most of the top 20 vehicles favored by retirees are from Detroit’s Big Three. The only import model to crack the top 10 is the Toyota Avalon, which was designed to compete with large American sedans.

"I would say buyers over the age of 65 are the last bastion of fans for the traditional American vehicle," says Jack Nerad, executive editorial director and market analyst for Kelley Blue Book in Irvine, Calif.

Part of the older generation's loyalty to domestic automakers stems from remembering a time when "what was good for GM was good for America," says Robert Passikoff, president of Brand Keys in New York.

This age group, which precedes the Baby Boomer generation, also views vehicles from Buick, Cadillac, Lincoln and Mercury as status symbols. "The folks in this demographic feel that 'I worked hard and I deserve to be treated well,'" Passikoff says. "All of these cars are luxurious, fully loaded and comfortable."

Jace Grabouski, a salesman for a Ford, Lincoln, Mercury dealership in Leavenworth, Kan., says retirees always gravitate to specific models. "The Grand Marquis and Lincoln Town Car are all that shoppers from that age group look at when they come into the showroom," he says.

Like a lot of people who talk about cars favored by older drivers, Grabouski mentions the ease of entry and exit and comfortable seats as hallmarks of the Town Car.

But performance also plays a role: "People that age like the rear-wheel drive," he says. "It's what they're used to and what they drove when they were younger." The gear shifter on the steering column draws raves as well.

With more electronic features and gadgets added to vehicles every year, the AARP says buyers should choose models with controls that are simple to understand and use.

As obvious as it might sound, shoppers should make sure they can easily figure out where all the car's controls are, says Elinor Ginzler, senior vice president for livable communities at AARP in Washington, D.C. Buttons and switches mounted on the steering wheel to control the stereo, fan settings and cruise-control can help in this regard. Many of the vehicles on our top 20 list have them.

Ginzer also recommends large rearview mirrors and back-up cameras, which make it easier to maneuver the car. Lexus, whose full-size LS and midsize ES sedans made our top 20 list, offer back-up cameras, as do the Buicks, Cadillacs and other premium sedans in the ranking.

Power seats are also something to look for as they help drivers get into a better position behind the wheel, Ginzer says. "The height of the door is also important," she says. Vehicles that are high off the ground, like SUVs, or hunkered down, like sports cars, can be difficult to get in and out of. That's why large sedans, with their generous door openings, are a good fit for many drivers ages 65 and up.

Sometimes it's a mix of familiar and new technology that lures a mature demographic. Bob Field, a salesman at Field Buick in Kansas City, says the Buick Lacrosse and Lucerne's appeal to drivers of retirement age comes from a combination of the transmission selector on the steering column — something that's been a part of Buicks for decades — and OnStar, a newer feature that lets drivers communicate via satellite with a 24-hour call center to get directions or roadside assistance. It also immediately notifies emergency responders in the event of an accident.

"OnStar makes them feel safe, which is particularly important for that age group," Field says, adding that 85 percent of Buick buyers in his dealership are 55 and older. "These buyers can afford whatever they want, but at the same time, most are retired and live on fixed incomes. They still want value for their purchase."

The economy is a concern for buyers of every age, but it tends to be less of a worry for retirees with enough money to buy the cars on our top-20 list, most of which sell for more than $30,000. Some of the vehicles in the ranking are among the most luxurious cars offered by the various automakers. Notable ones include the Jaguar XJ and Lexus LS, which retail for more than $62,000.

"This is the final splurge for this group," Passikoff says. "It may be a larger car, but it's comfortable and people feel safe. There's a sense of reliability."

All 20 cars on the list get less than 30 miles per gallon on the highway. While most sources say buyers over 65 aren't as concerned with fuel economy as younger groups, a dollar — or $4 dollars — only stretches so far, no matter what your age.

Larry Leighton, 65, was fairly conservative with his recent car purchase, and he didn't buy a large sedan, either. Leighton, a resident of Norman, Okla., who worked for AT&T, says he has always wanted to buy a sport utility vehicle, after owning mostly Plymouth and Dodge cars for years.

The performance and comfort of the 2008 Jeep Patriot, a compact crossover utility vehicle that looks like an SUV but drives more like a car, convinced him to take the plunge. "I like the comfort of the vehicle and the maneuverability," Leighton says, adding that the seats strike just the right balance between being cushiony and supportive. He's also pleased with the gas mileage — around 25 miles per gallon in mixed driving in the city and on the highway.

Lieghton and his contemporaries could be harbingers of a new generation of retirees — one that has an outlook and buying habits drastically different than those already in retirement for some years now.

"The next generation gravitates more toward sportier, performance-oriented vehicles that seem more youthful as opposed to traditional, large luxury American brands," says KBB's Nerad. As a result, domestic automakers may have a tougher time attracting Baby Boomers, the next generation to turn 65. "American automakers have been worried about that for the last decade, and they still have reason to worry," he says.

Tom Libby, senior director of industry analysis for J.D. Power in Troy, Mich., says the brands near the top of our list will have a tough time reaching younger consumers. "These are brands that have a widespread reputation as appealing to older buyers, and that's a hard thing to change," he says.

Domestic automakers are already adapting their marketing approach to attract younger buyers. Cadillac is running celebrity-laden commercials aimed at younger viewers and Lincoln is positioning its MKZ, which came in ninth, to a younger audience.

Models with the lowest percentage of buyers of retirement age (below 3 percent) include the Audi A3, BMW M3, Honda S2000, Infiniti QX56, Land Rover LR3, Land Rover Range Rover Sport, Nissan Armada, Volkswagen GTI, Volkswagen R32 and Volkswagen Touareg.

"It's not really a surprise. The Land Rover has a younger average age and Volkswagen has also appealed to younger buyers," Libby says, adding that most of the models in the bottom 10 are sporty and definitively marketed toward younger drivers.