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Some new cars trade visibility for safety, better aerodynamics

The 2013 Ford Mustang offers rear view camera,

The 2013 Ford Mustang offers rear view camera, which is activated when the car is shifted into reverse. A video image is displayed on the navigation screen or on the rearview mirror that gives the driver a clear view behind the vehicle. (Credit: Handout)

Q: Why do new cars have less glass and more metal that limit visibility? Rear visibility is terrible in newer cars. My 10-year-old cars have excellent visibility all around and good aerodynamic shapes.

A. We agree that visibility is restricted in many current vehicles. At times, sitting behind the wheel of a vehicle with thick roof pillars, narrow side and rear windows, and large head restraints, the claustrophobic surroundings make us feel like we’re strapped in a bunker and viewing the world through gun slits.

This comes from a combination of factors —- safety, aerodynamics and fashion trends. We won’t argue that many 10-year-old cars had better visibility than current models, but we question whether cars from a decade ago were more aerodynamic. They may look more aerodynamic, but current vehicles that don’t look so slippery often have subtle but effective ways of directing air over and around the body more efficiently.

One such example: When Dodge redesigned its pickup trucks, the grille leaned slightly forward instead of backward. This counter-intuitive design, Dodge insisted, improved the aerodynamics, so don’t judge the book by the cover.

The height of the “greenhouse” (or windows) has shrunk on many vehicles to improve aerodynamics (and fuel economy), and the “belt line” or height of the sheet metal on the doors has become higher to improve side-impact protection. However, we’ve been told by some manufacturers that narrow side and rear windows are mainly a design trend. Likewise, some manufacturers say roof pillars are wider, especially at the rear, to make the roof stronger in rollovers, while others maintain that thick, sloping rear pillars are more for aerodynamics and looks than safety.

Cars.com executive editor Joe Wiesenfelder points out that when designers lean back the front pillars to improve aerodynamics, that also moves the pillars further forward, where they’re more likely to be in your line of vision. In back, trunks are higher now partly to increase cargo volume without making the car longer, Wiesenfelder says. A hatchback profile or “fastback” rear design also improves aerodynamics, so rear pillars and windows now tend to have a smooth, shallow slope instead of a steep angle. That often results in a narrower rear window.

Rear visibility has become a big enough issue that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is drawing up a regulation that would mandate rear cameras on all vehicles. Rear cameras are becoming more widely available, often as optional equipment, but NHTSA wants them to be standard.

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