Cup Holders Now A Big Selling Point

Do you ever wonder what it must have been like B.C. - Before Cup holders - when a driver had to balance a cup of hot java precariously on a dash, or else try to steer, shift and drive while carefully squeezing the cup between his or her knees?

OK, chances are you probably don't spend much time thinking about cup holders.

But automakers do. Cup holders are one of the small things that drivers have said they like.

That's why there is some type of cup holder in most cars, trucks and vans built these days.

And some vehicles, such as the Pontiac Trans Sport minivan, can hold more cups than people. The Pontiac has 16 cup holders, but is designed to carry only seven passengers.

Why all the fuss over cup holders?

It's simple, really. Cup holders are the direct result of the explosion in popularity of fast-food restaurants and convenience stores, which makes it easy to get drinks on the go, and the fact that we Americans are spending more and more time in our cars.

According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, Americans drove more than 2.1 billion miles in 1990, up from just more than 1.5 billion miles driven in 1980. In 1990 the average daily commute to and from work took about 39.4 minutes, up from about 38 minutes in 1985, according to the DOT.

Cup holders are a U.S. phenomenon. You are not likely to find cup holders in cars in Japan or Europe.

On the surface, cup holders might seem innocuous enough. Yet they are not small items to automakers, whose interior stylists expend a great deal of energy, research and money designing cup holders.

When Chrysler started planning the redesign of its Dodge Caravan and Plymouth Voyager minivans in the late 1980s, it paid particular attention to cup holders.

"When we began doing the new minivan, we evaluated all the letters that we got. That's when the cup holder thing really began to take off. It was one of those crazy little things that people thought were really neat," said Trevor Creed, an Englishman who is the interior design chief for Chrysler's Jeep and Dodge truck division.

Automakers are running to stay ahead of the competition, and are constantly looking for ways to endear their vehicles to buyers. Cup holders are one of those items that have done just that.

"I use the cup holder all the time. I have hot tea in the morning and Cokes in the afternoon," said Julie Bair of Casselberry, Fla., a food saleswoman who logs a lot of time behind the wheel of her 1990 Honda Accord.

Bair said she checked cup holders when she was looking at new cars. Her old car didn't have a built-in cup holder.

"I have a friend who just bought a Honda Accord EX. That's the first thing she told me about. She said, `Look at my new cup holder,' " said Bair.

At Chrysler's design studio, there's a chart on the wall with all the dimensions of commercially available coffee mugs, soda cups and drink containers, Creed said.

On the long-wheelbase versions of Chrysler's Dodge Caravan and Plymouth Voyager, Creed's crew designed the industry's first square cup holders especially for the small straw-through-the-top juice containers favored by kids.

And that brings up another perplexing problem for automotive interior designers: Drink containers always seem to be changing. A good example is the popular 44-ounce "Big Gulp" drinks sold at 7-Eleven and other such large-size drinks sold at other convenience stores.

"It's hard to get a fix on cup-holder trends because drink containers, shapes and sizes are constantly changing," said Timothy Grieg, the assistant studio chief for Pontiac interiors at the GM Design Staff in Warren, Mich.

"We used to design can holders that would hold a soda can properly. Then out came the 18- and 20-ounce pop bottles that have a screw on cap. They are bigger at the base. Now we are designing cup holders to hold those bottles," Grieg said.

Cup holders can add something other than convenience - safety.

"Putting a hot cup of coffee on the dash is dangerous," said Chrysler's Creed. So is a loose soda bottle or can. Both could go flying in an emergency stop.

Creed said he doesn't think cup holders influence a person's decision to buy a vehicle.

But Finlay, the Pontiac salesman, thinks they play a part.

"They are an integral part of selling cars now." --------------------------------------------------------------- Cup holders rated

-- Lexus LS 400: State-of-the-art. Uses principles of hydraulics. Holds two cups or cans. Highest rating: 5 mugs. -- Pontiac Bonneville SE: Center armrest, spring-loaded holders expand to conform to the size of cup or bottle. Best low-tech holder on the road. 5 mugs. -- Jeep Grand Cherokee: Two deep indents in the center console. A no-tech cup holder that works well. 4 mugs. -- Mercury Sable: Clearly labeled on the dash and spring-loaded, but still must be manually deployed. 3 mugs. -- Toyota Camry: Must be manually pulled out of the dash, but has a chintzy feel. 2 mugs. -- Nissan Maxima: A paragon of cheapness. A flimsy piece of plastic over a tray in dash and too close to radio. 1 mug. -- Pontiac Trans Sport: What a mess! Lowest rating: 0 mugs.