Before you write this story off as just another “auto journalist yearns for the past,” article, hear me out. The coronavirus, a shift towards electromobility, and the current “van life” trend have all come together into the perfect moment for the return of the bench seat—one of the greatest features in all of automotive history. Here’s what I mean.
If you’re a product planner in the auto industry, you’re looking to not only equip your future vehicle with the tech and safety features that folks shopping in your segment are looking for, but you’re also keen to make your car stand out. You’re seeking a feature that you can market as a fun, whiz-bang option—something that your dealers can mention to get buyers excited.
That something could be a bench seat. Just look at the Land Rover Defender that launched last year. That split-bench seat was a hit, with automotive media outlets writing stories solely about how magnificent that flat plane of butt-cushioning is.
Let’s get into why now is the perfect time for the return of the bench seat. Allow me to take you back to June, when I embarked on an epic 3,000 mile road trip from suburban Detroit in Michigan to Chapel Hill, North Carolina, to Dallas, Texas, and then to Fayetteville, Arkansas before returning to Michigan. My vehicle of choice? My 1985 Jeep J10 pickup.
I’ll get into the details of this road trip some other time, because you all deserve to read more about that beloved J10 that I’d been neglecting for years. But the important bit came into play in June. That’s when I was in Fayetteville, a beautiful college town in northwest Arkansas. While there, my brother—a former college student at the University of Arkansas—opened up a dating app on my phone, and managed to “match” me up with an extremely cool woman, whom I had a great conversation with, and who, in short order, decided to join me on a date.
Our second date a few days later (and prior to my departure back to Michigan) was a drive-in movie—my very first drive-in if you discount the fake drive-in theater I built in my backyard (you should discount it because the wind kept blowing my bedsheet “projector screen” away, and my friends and I just ended up watching The Emperor’s New Groove on my house’s blue aluminum siding—not optimal!).
The date was awesome. She brought a mini-cooler of mixed drinks, I bought us some burgers on the way to the big parking lot by the giant blank billboard, and it was basically just a picnic in a car, with the key ingredient being that large expanse of flat space that is the bench seat.
What’s my point? Well, the Coronavirus pandemic has shut down traditional movie theaters, and the world is seeing a resurgence of drive-ins (which—if we’re honest—should never have gone away in the first place) since they allow for socially-distanced moviegoing. Attending a drive-in in a vehicle with two bucket seats up front is like going on a date to a regular movie theater in which there’s a huge, immovable armrest between you and the other person. It’s a bit silly and awkward.
To be clear, I’m not saying product planners should push for a feature whose benefit relies on the continuation of this dastardly pandemic. My point is that I think drive-in theaters are here to stay. I think the pandemic has illuminated their brilliance, and the world isn’t likely to forget that anytime soon.
And though there are other ways to enjoy a drive-in—you can sit in the bed of your truck, or in the back of your SUV with its hatch popped—the reality is that a drive-in movie date in a vehicle with a bench seat is simply classic, and one of the greatest joys in this life.
If drive-ins are going to stick around, then surely automakers will realize the marketing brilliance of offering a bench seat.
Okay, so maybe you don’t give a damn about drive-in movies. That’s fine (weird, but fine). But let’s just talk about utility.
Even with my J10, one of the downsides of sitting in that center section of my bench is the fact that the transmission tunnel and the four-speed shifter and transfer case lever do make things a bit cramped for your legs. It’s still awesome to sit there, don’t get me wrong, but it’d be a bit uncomfortable for a long road trip.
Many vehicles will have this issue, except EVs, which lack the huge bump in the center of the vehicle needed for a transmission and exhaust pipe. Front-wheel drive vehicles can generally get around this, too if the shifter is mounted on the dash (which is becoming more prominent since electronic shifters have taken the place of mechanical ones), though they do still have to package an exhaust tube.
On many EVs, the floor is completely flat (or nearly—sometimes the cable from the underhood electronics to the battery pack creates a little bump), meaning a bench seat would have some real utility. One could sit there for a long trip, comfortably. So there’s really no reason why many modern EVs shouldn’t sit three across in the front row.
The image above shows the Honda Urban EV concept from 2017. This tall, boxy electric city car is exactly the kind of application in which a bench seat would make great sense. Why waste space by putting a center console there? You could probably sit six smaller people reasonably comfortable in that car, you’d have a great drive-in theater machine, and heck, you could probably even sleep in the car.
The fact that, by the time that cool electric Honda became a production model called the Honda E, its interior became bench-less (see image above) is just sad.
Another great thing about a bench seat is that you can sleep on it. You may have to bend your knees a bit or stick them out the window, but trust me, you can definitely do it, and it’s great. And if your car is too narrow, there is opportunity for the seatback to lean rearward, and join the rear bench of your SUV/crew cab pickup to create a long, flatbed—not unlike the rear benches of the Dodge Caravan/Plymouth Voyager, which fold flat in what Chrysler dubbed the “Convert-a-Bed”:
This kind of thing is “in” right now, and has been for the past several years. It’s partly because the pandemic has allowed for more flexible mobility due to folks working remotely, causing many to go on extended road trips while working along the way. But even prior to the pandemic, this van life/overlanding trend has been picking up steam for years.
This is obvious to us here at Jalopnik, as when we write stories about living in cars, the articles always do incredibly well in terms of readership. I think that’s just because, for whatever reason, people are just intrigued by the idea of pure freedom of mobility—not being tied down by a house, but just living a nomadic lifestyle.
Just hop online and look at all the “van life” Pinterest boards, and take a gander at the thousands of dollars people are sinking into turning their SUVs into the ultimate overlanding rigs—four-figure mini-fridges, pricey solar panels, etc. It’s just a hot trend.
Hell, when Ford debuted its new F-150 debuted, the Blue Oval made a big deal about flat-folding front seats. From the new truck’s press release:
Class-exclusive Max Recline Seats available on King Ranch, Platinum and Limited models provide ultimate comfort during downtime. Max Recline Seats fold flat to nearly 180 degrees, with the bottom cushion rising to meet the back cushion and the upper back support rotating forward up to 10 degrees for maximum comfort.
See, Ford gets it. An increasing number of people seem to like the idea of at least having the option of sleeping in their vehicle. And a bench seat can make that really easy and comfortable.
Speaking of comfort, that is admittedly, one of the issues associated with bench seats, along with safety. I’ll admit that my J10's bench isn’t the coziest, but I think there is some low-hanging fruit on that front that a smart engineer or two could grab. I also will accept two bucket seats with a middle “mini seat” as a bench; this “split bench” solves the comfort issue and allows for independent legroom adjustment, though I personally prefer a true, single-piece bench.
Then there’s the safety angle, which, per a 2013 article by Cars.com, is a bit of an issue, since, per a representative from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, “The front passenger airbag is not required by federal standard to protect a middle seat occupant.” Still, I think that could be solved relatively easily. Engineers are smart, and automakers are shoving airbags all over the place these days; finding a way to protect a center passenger from eating a 12-inch infotainment screen should be more than feasible.
There’s also this issue of perception. Back in 2016, my former-coworker Alanis King wrote a story about why bench seats died off in the first place, citing the fact that many perceived bucket seats to be “sporty,” and we all know: sporty is cool. Her story continued:
In addition to European influences, bench seats made their exit for a number of reasons. Chrysler phased the seats out completely from its cars in 2004 and Ford followed in 2011, mainly due to customer preference. Per the New York Times, Chevrolet said only 10 percent of its customers chose a bench seat in the Impala at the end of its days. From The Chicago Tribune’s 2004 interview with GM’s vice president of product engineering at the time, Jim Queen:
“‘The customers seem to have decided the issue,’” Queen said. “‘The reason we dropped bench seats was that the demand had dropped. If you tried to go back to bench seats, people would complain. They prefer bucket seats and split benches.’”
So there are a few things in the way of bench seats returning. Folks have preferred bucket seats for a while now, there are some safety concerns, and comfort is a bit of an issue. But I still think that, right now, given the overlanding trend, the move towards EVs (and the existence of front-drive vehicles with dash-mounted electronic shifters that should free up the center floor space), and the resurgence of the drive-in theater, the bench seat deserves another chance.
Maybe not in all cars, but I could see it being cool in, say, an electric Subaru, or maybe even in the upcoming VW ID.4 electric SUV. Or even just a front-wheel-drive ICE car like a Kia Soul.
One car that did the split-bench fairly well was the Fiat Multipla, a front-drive car with a dash-mounted mechanical shifter. Check it out:
And then there are all the Kei cars, like this Daihatsu Move Canbus:
The U.S. market offers bench seats in a few pickups, but that’s just not enough options. With the resurgence of the drive-in, the odd desire for people to sleep in cars, and move towards EVs, we deserve a smorgasbord of bench-seat options. Hopefully some product planner out there will see the light.