If you have a bad back and want a vehicle you can live with, read on.
Amazingly, 80 percent of Americans will suffer from back problems within their lifetimes. Researchers say that the number of Americans with chronic back pain is also increasing.
Dr. Timothy S. Carey, director of the Sheps Center and Sarah Graham Kenan Professor in the departments of medicine and social medicine in the UNC School of Medicine noted in a study on back pain that “low back pain is the second most common cause of disability in the United States and a common reason for missing work.”
With so many of us suffering from the same issue, one would think automakers would go out of their way to focus on this very issue. However, very few highlight the features that make their vehicles back-friendly in advertising.
In our BestRide vehicle testing we do notice which of the vehicles we drive are easy on the back, and we can now report on which ones work best, and what makes them standouts.
Start with crossovers
Of course, not everyone’s back pain manifests itself in the same manner. However, there are some that meet a lot of needs.
The first is the Nissan Rogue. This class of vehicle has one basic advantage over many others: They are all very easy to get in to and out of. If you’re of average size — 197 lbs. and 69.1 inches tall for men, 170.6 lbs. and 63.7 inches tall for women — you don’t have to fold yourself into a crossover of this size. Rather, you can sit on the seat, swing the hips and pull your legs inside to enter.
Compared to any sedan, crossovers are easier on the back for this simple reason.
But what makes the Rogue better than most crossovers of the same size?
We find the Rogue has seats that tip forward a bit, even at the edge of their settings. This places the knees below the hips.
At the Car Talk Community, many members with bad backs are looking for exactly this type of seat arrangement. So, we name the Rogue a best bet for folks who want their legs to sort of angle down when seated.
Similarly, the Nissan Leaf EV has a seating position that is unusual this way. The Leaf is also not a low-slung sedan, so it has some of the benefits of the crossovers in this regard.
Conversely, some folks with bad backs want to have their glutes lower than their knees when seated. They like the femurs to angle up a bit. Your author falls into this particular group.
For this subset of folks with lower back pain, the Leaf and Rogue are not the top choices. Instead, these people should look first at the trim levels, not the specific model. Almost all vehicles with power-adjustable seats have the ability to drop the rear of the seat bottom down, and then angle up the front of the seat bottom. This angles the femurs up and puts the knees above the hips.
There are many good options for this group in the crossover segment. Start with the top-sellers like the Honda CR-V and Subaru Forester and consider the higher trims with power seats.
Most vehicles with power seats also offer adjustable lumbar support. Some even offer lumbar support you can adjust up and down as well as in and out. Be sure the vehicle you consider has at least some lumbar adjustment. We also recommend heated seats. In today’s market, most crossovers above the base model will offer heated seats either standard or as part of a “cold weather package.”
Many of those with aching backs also have kids to consider.
Here, the higher up a vehicle, the better – to a degree. If you are going to have to help buckle a child into a back seat, you want to minimize having to bend and twist. Again, avoiding sedans is the best strategy.
Crossovers have a better ride height for leaning into a back seat to help the little ones. Crossovers also have higher ceilings than do sedans, so you have more room to work without bending.
The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) rates every vehicle it tests for the ease of use of the LATCH child seat anchors. The Institute does not just give a single level rating. They go into great detail on the location and functionality of the LATCH system in every model along with its ease of use. Even better, IIHS published a report in June of 2019 ranking every vehicle in this regard.
About 50 models scored Good or Good+ including the Nissan Rogue, Subaru Forester, and Toyota RAV4. Only four models scored Poor and those are worth avoiding if you are a parent with back trouble.
Pickups and bad backs
Pickup trucks are a very serious consideration for taller drivers with bad backs. The higher ride height is a benefit. Trucks are very different today than just a decade ago. Every manufacturer now has smooth-riding luxury trims for those who have a big budget. Our favorite is the Ram 1500. Its ride is considered by reviewers to be the smoothest by a noticeable degree.
Worst vehicles for bad backs – and alternatives
So which are the “worst” vehicles?
In our testing, we have found four-door compact sports sedans and sports cars to be the body styles that are hardest on backs. They have a design that makes it difficult to enter and exit, and the B-pillar is too far forward. That means you have to climb forward as well as up to get out.
The single hardest vehicle we have ever tested for egress (exiting) is the BMW i8. It is also one of our overall favorite cars, which breaks our hearts! The i8 is a near supercar made to order, so we won’t be hurting its sales by calling out its unusual design.
Those who want premium style and impressive performance, but who also have back issues would do well to check out the BMW X3 crossover instead. We suggest opting for a mid-level or entry trim with the standard wheels to avoid the lowest profile tires which make the ride stiffer. Some BMW models we have tested also had thigh extensions that lengthen the seat. This is a feature worth considering if you can find it.
Suffering from a bad back is no joke. If you are shopping for a new or used vehicle, take the time to do a longer than usual road test. Most dealerships will give you all the wheel time you need. Luxury brands may even offer to let you take a vehicle home to try. Some, like Genesis, will even bring the vehicle to you.
A short test drive is not enough time to settle in and see how your back will fit a particular model. For even more wheel time, visit more than one dealership for the same model and drive the vehicle more than once on different days. You may have the next new car you buy for a decade or more. Take ample time to ensure that the one you select will work with your body.