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Exploring What Makes Vehicles Feel Good

comfort mode

Illustration by Dilek BaykaraCar and Driver

From the April 2022 issue of Car and Driver.

I just had a birthday, and I think my warranty expired, because the very next day I hurt my back doing something so basic that I don’t even remember what it was. Did I yawn too vigorously? Raise too heavy an eyebrow? My friends over 40 tell me this is normal aging, and I should get used to it. Thanks, I hate it.

Spoiled as I was in my former, unbroken body, I never paid much attention to the finer details of ride quality in a car. I mean, I did my job of declaring certain cars to be firmer and more skull rattling than others, but it didn’t matter to me personally. I’ve ridden through Baja in a ’57 Chevy. I daily-drove a Viper for six months. I’ve gone to dinner in the back seat of a Porsche GT3. “A GT3 doesn’t have a back seat,” you’re saying. Yes, I’m aware.

Suddenly I’m less flexible and less smug, and I’m paying more attention to why vehicles feel good. The cars I most want to spend time in surprise me. It’s about more than just jounce and rebound. The Bentley Bentayga S, with its massaging seats and multiple suspension modes, is a spa on wheels. Yet the Jeep Wrangler Rubicon 392, whose closest analogue to a massage function is how quickly you drive it over a rutted dirt road, offers its own sort of comfort: the reassurance that any obstacle in your path is just a throttle application away from being a former obstacle. So what makes a car comfortable? Is it all in the spine, or is it in the mind?

Asking the internet for a “comfort expert” returns links to HVAC installation and repair. Certainly, a car that is too hot or too cold is a misery, and heated and ventilated seats are one of my favorite modern innovations. However, I don’t think the key to comfort is keeping one’s bum at the right temperature. Speaking of rump roast, my next search auto­filled “comfort food,” leading me to Martha Stewart’s website, which suggests that comfort foods are soothing not so much because of an ingredient, but because of the memories associated with them.

It isn’t the salt and noodles of mac and cheese that bring peace—it’s the subliminal recollections of childhood happiness. This is true for cars as well. Consider that common party question, “What’s your favorite seatbelt?” Personally, I’d describe the GM lap belt I grew up with. Any car with that heavy black buckle and metallic-blue center release makes me feel small and (perhaps ironically) safe. Safety is a part of comfort. Although as I recently wrestled with the lane-keeping function of a Mustang Mach-E and struggled to find the “off” option in a menu, I thought of another element of comfort: familiarity. It doesn’t matter how clever a semi-autonomous option is, or how heated a seat is, if you can’t locate the controls to turn it off.

Comfort, then, is not just lumbar support but also emotional support. A comfortable person is happy and vice versa. Meik Wiking, founder of the Happiness Research Institute in Copenhagen and author of several books, writes that Danes are among the happiest people on earth thanks to their dedication to a particular coziness they call “hygge.” Like all joys, hygge is not easily defined, but Wiking says it tends to be found by candle- or firelight, wrapped in knitted blankets, and scented like hot apple cider.

By that logic, the Hyundai Elantra N, with its crackling-fireplace sound effect, is very hygge, despite a chassis as stiff as a Britisher’s upper lip. I’d agree, but not because of the fireplace—it’s the warm hug of familiarity and confidence. The simplicity of a six-speed manual, a cheerful (and quick) powerplant, and needle-sharp handling made it as comfortable as the Bentley to me, although my chiropractor might disagree. Now I just need a 12-volt slow cooker full of mac and cheese.

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