Let’s take a moment to step back from all the trivial news you’re reading about today to examine something of utmost importance, an issue that impacts untold millions across North America, and to a lesser extent, the world.
Every day, we spend hours sitting in traffic, listening to our jams, knowing only the receptacle in our daily ride, but there is a whole world of wonder and horror out there when it comes to cupholders, from the very first dash-top indented rings to creations of marvellously complex engineering whose only possible purpose is to break more easily. Europeans once laughed at us North Americans and our desire to take our double-doubles, water bottles, and Venti Mocha frappa-cappa-ding-dongs with us, but now all their cars have cupholders, too, so I’d say we won that war!
We are not here to rank every cupholder ever conceived, but we will look at some of the best on the market today, and ridicule some strange creations from the past. However, before we get to the heart of darkness of unsupported beverage pits, let us both compliment the many automakers that have recognized the superiority of a deep, fixed, centre console recess for the driver’s primary beverage – that is indeed an ideal placement. Some only have a single, lone, solitary receptacle for an average drink, and that is fine, too, plus removable liners are much appreciated for ease of cleaning.
But it pains us when it is a too-large, unsupportive, too-shallow, slippy-slidey plastic-bottom pit that leads to sloshing, which can lead to projectile spurting, or worse yet, heaven forbid, tipping. Then there are the too-narrow, too-tight squeezers that will not accommodate even an average-sized coffee in safety, like the entire world drinks Red Bull with an occasional espresso on the go.
Okay, for the first few days I had the Lexus RX 350 L recently, I would press the button between the cupholders marked “PUSH” with an arrow pointing upwards, thinking it was a release to free the lining for cleaning (an excellent feature no doubt, for the spilliest, stickiest of areas), but no, this was another level of genius entirely. The front cup holder in the RX is variable depth, so if you have a taller water bottle or extra large coffee, you can press it down to be more deeply secure. The button releases the spring-loaded mechanism to raise the floor, so a small Tim’s coffee won’t be sunk right down to the lid making it almost impossible to extract.
But that’s not all!
The RX cupholders also feature side support, three spring-loaded helping fingers that aren’t too firm, yielding to wider cups easily enough, but blessed with rubber rollers to help secure narrower drink cans in concert with the rubber-lined mat on the bottom. Folks, I think we’ve just about achieved cupholder perfection here. While the second slot in the console cup-cradling duo is a fixed depth, it still has the rubber mat and side grips for various widths, so it’s an acceptable companion to the truly innovative and adaptable drink holder.
Honourable mention: Ford Focus and others with manually removable pedestals that offer different depths for different drinks.
More is Better
One good place for any drink is all well and good, but some families like to stay hydrated, caffeinated, and hydrated again on long and short trips. If you feel like you never have enough places for the drinks in your life and family, consider the Subaru Ascent and its 19 cupholders. Yes, nineteen, one short of twenty. Subaru has climbed to dizzying heights in the quest for cupholder supremacy.
You’ve got your two typical centre console cupholders in the front, and they may not be spectacular, but they are about the right size if a bit large (good for Subaru-driving refillable-water-bottle-using goodie-two-shoes), and have a rubber mat on the bottom to prevent slippage. Then you’ve got two bottle holder slots in each of the front door pockets making for six beverage slots in the front row alone.
Curiously, if ever there was a vehicle that prioritized rear-passenger hydration over front passenger caffeination, the Ascent is it. It’s not just the fact of eight cupholders in the second row, two of which tuck into the centre console below the rear vents, meaning you don’t lose any of them even if the centre seat is occupied. Nope, it’s the simple but clever placement of a bottle-sized cupholder high on the door – perfect for kids of any size, even if they’re in car seats – which really impressed us on our road trip and annual camping trip in the Ascent.
If you’re doing the math, you’ll know we’re not even done yet, because there are five more in the third row, with a smaller one on the passenger side for something like a juice box, plus a separate tray for a phone or device. No passenger in the Ascent will be short on drink space; and because cupholders can double as device storage, stuff can be conveniently stowed when screen-time is over.
Honourable mention: Volkswagen Atlas, which was briefly the champ with 17.
The Double Down
Ford F-Series Super Duty
WIth a variety of bed sizes and massive payload and tow rating, you could transport an entire coffee-roasting operation, but what got our attention is a clever trick Ford came up with for the latest Super Duty launches in 2017. The two primary cupholders are wide and deep with grippy rubber bladders, and a connecting slot in between them for handles on big Texas-sized travel mugs, but that’s not the best part.
Next to the cupholders is a storage slot with a removable divider tray that can separate coins from keys or gum and candy, whatever… However, the top of the cupholder side is a sliding cover that can move over to the storage side, and the rings cut out for the cupholder become a second pair of cupholders with nice rubberized floor at the bottom. They won’t be the most secure cupholders ever, but it’s great for riding with coffee and water in an easily accessible location, and another example of the ingenuity and convenience Ford brings to bear in these trucks.
Honourable mention: Mazda MX-5’s removable cupholders – available when you need them, with two at the rear of the centre console and one that can go on the passenger side of the centre console.
Of course you want your hot drinks to stay hot and cold drinks to stay cold, but only a few examples of heated and cooled cupholders have been available, the most recent model to launch with them being the Mercedes-Benz GLE. At the press of a button, you can direct a cooling airflow or trigger a heating element that will try to maintain the temperature of your chosen beverage. Of course, they can’t be terribly powerful for safety reasons, but if keeping that coffee one degree warmer for an extra minute is important to you, this might be the SUV for you. Alternatively, aftermarket units are available that slip in to existing cupholders or clip onto the side of the console and plug in to one of your vehicles outlets.
Basic but Good
Now, not every cupholder needs to be extreme or wildly innovative to catch our attention, and we highlight the Pacifica as the best of the basic: simple yet spacious, with fairly large bladders that help them secure smaller cans but can still flex out of the way for larger bottles or mugs. These superior cupholders aren’t just for mom and dad either, as there is a tray that slides out of the back of the centre console with similar beverage holders for second-row passengers. And like the Subaru Ascent, the Pacifica has cupholders in all three rows to keep every passenger well hydrated.
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Honourable mention: Hyundai Tucson is an example of another good basic design type – just the right size, with spring-loaded arms that help hold a variety of container sizes in place.
What Were They Thinking?
There are plenty of good ones on the market right now, but only a few that truly deserve our scorn. Chief among those are the Porsche retractable cupholders that you will find on a number of their products. It’s great that they disappear when not in use, but they are so close to being useless that it’s a tragic waste of Porsche’s engineering resources. Granted, it does continue a tradition of similarly useless pop-out cupholders in Volkswagen group products over the years, but why do they think that drinks are never more than four inches tall? Anything taller than that is a huge spill risk as the arm is too close to the bottom.
Porsche and Volkswagen were not alone in experimenting with novel collapsible drink holders, and one legendary example was from Saab, which was one of the flimsiest pieces of plastic ever to be tasked with keeping a beverage upright. At least BMW and Porsche were smart enough to keep them over the passenger and not too close to the driver, because they knew the drinks would end up in someone’s lap half the time. This thing is a marvel of engineering for fascination and not function, unless its primary function was being left hidden in the console.
Considering that crossovers are taking over the roads because of their convenience and utility, it is shocking to see a freshly updated subcompact crossover miss the mark so completely when it comes to the space for your cup of coffee. The brand-new 2019 Mazda CX-3 has a storage console under the armrest, with the forward section open, and the mere suggestion of a semi-circular cradle for a cupholder. C’mon Mazda, Driving Matters, but cupholders are sacrosanct. There needs to be some measure of support for coffee or tea in typical takeout cups, because drinks just slip and slosh all over the place in these.
In an entirely different example of good design gone wrong, we will call your attention to removable rubberized liners that are poorly secured. Two recent examples I can think of are the Toyota 4Runner and Chevrolet Colorado. It’s great for a rubberized receptacle to hold a drink tightly, but when the removable liner is not secured at all, condensation from cold drinks form a pretty strong glue for about half a second, and having the liner come out with the drink and then fall off as you’re taking a sip isn’t exactly a recipe for keeping your eyes and attention on the road. Of the pair, the Colorado was worse because the liner encompasses two drink spaces so it’s quite a nuisance when it comes out.
Lastly, we have to give some flak to the elbow bashers – cupholders placed awkwardly to the directly to the rear of the shifter, colliding with elbows during spirited driving, especially when paired with a manual transmission. The previous generation Mazda MX-5 Miata was guilty of this, its cramped quarters doing it no favours, and the Toyobaru twins Subaru BRZ and Toyota 86 continue the tradition of driver’s cars with questionable cupholders. The BRZ and 86 cupholders are also positioned in line with the shifter, but they’re fairly deep and the tray slides back and out of the way. However, then your drink is in an impossible position to reach for a quick sip, so these are more for carrying drinks to your destination, and not sipping on the go.