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2012 Volvo XC90 (ERIK:FAGERWALL/Volvo)
2012 Volvo XC90 (ERIK:FAGERWALL/Volvo)

What cars are best for my bad back? Add to ...

I own a 2001 Toyota Highlander with 270,000 kilometres on it. It has been a wonderful, reliable vehicle, but as I age (66) my back has become my focus. My criteria for searching for a new SUV (Lexus RX350 has caught my eye) now starts with exceptional back support for my frame (6-foot-3, 240 pounds) followed by high reliability and good efficiency. My wife and I enjoy touring by car and hope to continue, my back willing. – Ron in North Vancouver

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Cato: Ron, 85 per cent of working Canadians can relate. That’s the percentage of working Canadians affected by low back pain, says the Global Wellness and Chiropractic Centre. I’m one. The lower-back stress fracture I got from rowing in the 1980s plagues me to this day.

Vaughan: Ronnie, great seats are a must in any car. I’m always commenting on seat comfort both for the short drives and the long hauls. Seats are hugely important for your enjoyable use of the vehicle, and while you should understand some of the principles of seat ergonomics, there is just no substitute for trying the seat on. It’s like buying a pair of shoes. Until you put them on, you simply can’t know if they will fit or be comfortable for the long run.

Cato: Forget the RX ($44,950), Ron. Great quality; it recently won its class in the latest J.D. Power and Associates Vehicle Dependability Study (VDS), but the seats lack under-thigh support and, overall, they’ll be too small for a big guy like you.

2012 Volvo XC90
 

The 2012 Volvo XC90 ($48,900), on the other hand. The Volvo is about the same size as the Lexus, though the styling and engineering are so old – Well, when last I checked Volvo had a $3,000 sales sweetener in play. The last time Volvo completely reinvented the XC90 was, I don’t know, a decade before Ford sold the company to Geely of China in 2010?

But I still think the XC90 would be right for your long highway runs, Ron – other than the fact it’s a gas guzzler. If not, then the Volvo XC70 wagon ($43,995). And then there’s always Volkswagen. The Touareg SUV ($53,575 for the 3.0 TDI Comfortline) has excellent seats and a diesel engine for road trips.

2012 VW Touareg 3.0 TDI
 

Vaughan: Cato, great seats or not, I’ve recently blown a thousand bucks and wasted three days of services appointments at a VW dealer, all trying to solve the power loss that happens with the check engine light in my diesel Golf. The problem remains. Until Volkswagen can service what it sells, I won’t recommend a VeeDub to anyone.

Cato: Perhaps you should just replace your 300-year-old Golf. Just saying.

But I’m hedging here myself because VW is a mainstream manufacturer charging premium prices, yet in the VDS the VW the brand ranked near the bottom for quality – and not a single VW model ranked among the top three in a single vehicle segment. Vaughan, you’re living proof that VW needs to clean up its quality act and the research agrees.

Vaughan: It’s time you agreed with me on something. Now here’s what I’ve recently learned about seats. A couple of weeks ago, I took a new Ford Flex on a good, long road test. Two days of solid driving. At the end, I could hardly stand up and, unlike you Cato, I’ve never had any back problems. I couldn’t believe it – I had sharp back pain.

When I left on the trip, I thought the Ford’s driver’s seat was extremely comfortable and I adjusted it so it felt like a comfy armchair. But at the end I was bent over and in pain. Now I think it was my fault, not the seats.

If you’re doing a long drive, then you have to find a range of comfortable postures and keep alternating among them. Vary things over long drives, at least once an hour. I didn’t do that. I was lazy and decided to set it and forget it. Ronnie, learn from my mistake.

Cato: Self-disclosure and self-awareness all in one fell swoop. Pain has done you good. Bravo, Vaughan.

2012 Mercedes-Benz ML350 BlueTec
 

Okay, truth is, the Germans do great seats. Ron, in your RX price range, the Mercedes-Benz ML350 BlueTec diesel ($59,400) might just hit the sweet spot. Supportive and adjustable seats, comfy ride, fuel-efficient engine and Mercedes’s VDS score is well above the average, though the ML itself didn’t win anything in 2012.

Vaughan: What about the 2013 Nissan Altima, with what they call “NASA-inspired zero-gravity" front seats?

Cato: Smart seat design, but Ron wants an SUV.

Vaughan: Ronald, whatever you do, make sure the seat adequately supports your neck, back and hips. Plus it has to have lots of adjustment so you change your posture about once an hour. And make sure the location of the seats lets you get in and out of the car easily. There is absolutely no substitute for trying the shoes on – er, I mean the seats.

Cato: Words of wisdom from a newly self-aware Vaughan.

HOW THEY COMPARE



2012 Volvo XC90 AWD 3.22012 Volkswagen Touareg 4MOTION 3.0 TDI Comfortline2012 Mercedes-Benz ML350 BlueTec 4MATIC

Wheelbase (mm)

2,8602,8932,915

Length (mm)

4,8084,7954,781

Width (mm)

1,9351,9401,911

Track, front (mm)

1,7831,7321,815

Engine

3.2-litre V-63.0-litre V-6, turbodiesel3.0-litre V-6, turbodiesel

Output (horsepower/torque)

240/236 lb-ft225/406 lb-ft240/455 lb-ft

Drive system

All-wheel driveAll-wheel driveAll-wheel drive

Transmission

Six-speed automaticEight-speed automaticSeven-speed automatic

Curb weight (kg)

2,1562,2562,255

Fuel economy (litres/100 km)

13.2 city/8.8 highway11.2 city/6.8 highway10.5 city/7.3 highway

Base price (MSRP)

$48,900$53,575$54,900

Source: car manufacturers

Jeremy Cato and Michael Vaughan are co-hosts of Car/Business, which appears Thursdays at 8:30 p.m. on Business News Network and Saturdays at 11:30 a.m. on CTV.

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