What were your favourite details from cars in Frankfurt? The vents on the lower body sides of the VW L1 were far and away my personal highlight, until I looked more closely at the door handles on the Rolls Royce Ghost. But back in the real world, I was quietly impressed with the fold-away centre seat design in the Ford Grand C-Max, a car that otherwise leaves me quite cold. Aimed squarely at young families, I suspect it’s a design feature that will not only make people go ‘oooh’ in the autoshow or dealership, but that they’ll really use in day-to-day life - watch the video below to see a quick demo of how it works.
To say that the seating layout in family cars is important, is as obvious as saying that cars need wheels. But it’s easy to forget that, up until the age of about 20, many of us had difficult relationships with our siblings. Certainly, the idea of sharing a rear bench for several hours with my younger brother rarely filled me with joy, and there would often be a spat ensuing before we’d got beyond the end of the drive! So when the first Renault Scenic (the car that essentially created the c-size MPV segment in Europe) arrived, we’d pestered my dad into buying one within just a couple of months of its launch – mainly because we wanted separate, reclinable chairs, fold away picnic tables and cubbies to keep our own books and walkmen in (no iPods in those days).
However, the price of all that independent rear chair malarkey was that to fold and remove them was quite a job (I seem to remember reading each chair weighed something like 15kg.) – folding and removing them usually resulting in skinned knuckles. So when Opel moved the game on with the seven-seat Zafira, it invented a very neat seating arrangement termed ‘flex-7’ which meant you could convert the vehicle into a van, without needing to take out all the chairs and leave them at home.
Access to that rearmost row of seats in the 7-seat MPV sector
remains something of an issue, however. In the smaller, c-segment
market that the Grand C-Max enters, the rearmost pews are only really
big enough for kids. Yet to get there, they need (and this applies to
most vehicles in the Segment such as the Scenic, Verso etc) to tilt and
slide the outermost centre row seat forwards to access the rearmost
row. Given that the chairs tend to be heavy, and the strength needed to operate the lever mechanisms
which tilt the chairs, this isn’t an ideal arrangement when small
people with tiny fingers are typically the ones trying to scramble into the back.
In fact, it's quite rare that seven full seats are used in these cars, typically it’s just five or six on the school run. So by allowing the middle row centre seat to be ‘disappeared’ into one of its neighbours, small kids can just walk straight through the vehicle to the back row without needing to get mum or dad to perform chair gymnastics. Ford have spent time designing a centre chair which makes all this possible. As the back tumbles forwards onto the squab, a secondary part of the backrest folds in, allowing the seat to be compact enough to fit inside the outer seat squab. The second device which allows this arrangement to work – and a critical change from the designs found in the opposition, is that instead of being secured to the floor, this centre seat is in fact supported by cantilevering off the outer chair. Once folded away, what’s left is a clear gangway between the two outer seats, allowing kids to simply climb in and walk through to the rearmost row.
It’s one of those ideas that gets you thinking ‘why didn’t anyone think of this before?’ But is a neat, if small, example of user-research led design, where actually observing how families use cars and spending time with them as they go about their lives has resulted in something genuinely useful and new. It’s amusing to hear, too, that Ford’s engineering and design teams aren’t above playing with Lego Technic in order to help them work out how the mechanism would work. We wonder if it was spending time observing kids that gave them that idea too.
Posted by Joseph Simpson on 22nd September 2009
Disclosure: Ford is sponsoring the Movement Design Bureau's research work in 2009