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Most motorists don't put much thought into the size, shape, spacing and placement of a vehicle's cup holders, but auto manufacturers certainly do.

In fact, cup holders are among the first elements to be mapped out in a new interior's blueprint.

"At the same time that we're trying to figure out where the occupant should be and the fundamentals of the vehicle, we're already specifying where the cup holders need to be, and how the design teams need to work around that area so that in the end [the cup holders] are in a good location," said Linda Brainer, senior project engineer and interior human factors specialist at General Motors.

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Brainer says GM puts such emphasis on its cup holders because, according to internal market research, 83 per cent of North American consumers store beverages in their vehicle on a daily basis.

And North America's drive-through commuter culture forces manufacturers to invest untold amounts of time, effort and money on getting the cup holder just right.

Eniso Ngwenya, product development and quality supervisor of interiors for Ford, says good cup holders don't necessarily sell cars, but poorly designed cup holders can be a deal-breaker.

"These are customers who have had the vehicle for 90 days, and it is within that time frame when items like cup holders or storage or comfort start to surface," she said. "One of the highest complaints we get, if we don't do it right, is the cup holder."

Manufacturers conduct extensive research into the most commonly used cups, cans, bottles and Thermos flasks used in cars. Toyota, for example, has specifically designed its cup holders to comfortably fit a large Tim Horton's coffee cup.

"There is the occasional use of a Red Bull – which is a thin can – all the way up to a Big Gulp, and you need to have something that fits everything in between," said Ryan Nagode, chief designer for Ram SRT and Fiat USA interiors.

Nagode says Chrysler's internal research found that 60 per cent of consumers regularly use a large cup, mug or bottle of up to 710 millilitres.

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But for manufacturers based outside North America, staying on top of the world of drive-through cup sizes can be a challenge. To keep up with the latest container-size trends, these manufacturers have containers shipped to their international design studios on a regular basis.

"As a result, now the global studios within Nissan have scanned these containers into the computer design system so that when they design a car for North America they can ensure there is space for two 32-ounce [950-millitre] drinks, space in the door for a half-litre water bottle and in the back seat there's additional space for more drinks and water bottles," said Bert Brooks, a senior manager of product planning for Nissan Canada.

While a staple as simplistic as the cup holder leaves little room for innovation, various manufacturers have attempted to upgrade it over the years.

BMW has experimented with heating and cooling capabilities, Ford and Chrysler have added lights in certain models and the Cadillac CTS includes power-assisted doors that close to hide the cup holders.

For most models, however, cup holders are simply a basic necessity.

"We're not seeing it as something we expect to wow the customer with, but its just a basic part of doing business now," Brooks said. "We know this has to be executed very well and meet the consumer's needs."

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