What's the single most important distinguishing feature of a car? Is it the horsepower? Gas mileage? Styling? No, no, and no. It's the driver's center armrest. Sound crazy? Perhaps so but hear me out...
When you're driving a car, you need to be comfortable. Given that we put on an average of about 12,000 to 15,000 miles on our cars each year, it's clear we spend a lot of time in the driver's seat. Even if you enjoy the thrill and dedicated attention required for a fast drive down a twisty road, most of your time at the helm will probably be spent cruising down a straight highway or stuck in traffic. In either case, comfort quickly becomes important above all else.
I recently owned a car which had no center armrest at all. It was a 2003 Ford Focus SVT. All-in-all it was a pretty fun car but I found the lack of an armrest to be simply awkward. What was I supposed to do with my right elbo when it wasn't actively guiding my hand to shift gears or turn the wheel? Rest it in my lap?
Interestingly, the contemporary non-SVT Focus did come with a center armrest - a big one too. I know because I had a non-SVT Focus not long after the SVT. Ford presumably deleted the armrest for the SVT was because they felt that the armrest might get in the way during spirited driving and shifting. To some degree they may be correct - the center armrest is very high compared to the shifter in Focuses so I can see how it could get in the way.
It's clear that car manufactures spend a large amount of time, money, and effort making the driver comfortable. Seats manage to be supportive for high speed cornering, yet comfortable for long distance driving. They adjust fit your preferences too - forward, backward, up, down, and recline are pretty much standard these days as are adjustable headrests. Steering wheels tilt and telescope. In some cases even the pedals move. Yet, all too often the driver's center armrest is more of an after thought than the spoiler was on your mom's Camry.
Surely this problem only plagues cheap cars though right? Wrong. One of the worst offenders is the ultimate driving machine - the BMW 3 Series.
What's wrong with this picture? You guessed it - the armrest! Try to rest your elbow on that. Oh wait, you can't because there's bite taken out of the armrest right where your arm should go! BMW, in its infinite wisdom, has decided that leaving a space there for your hand brake is more important than your comfort. Sure, convenient hand brake placement is important but this hand brake too far back for ideal reach anyway.
So why did they do it? Style? Perhaps it's tradition. I had a 3 Series from the generation before this one and it was plagued with the exact same problem. If tradition is the reason then the decision makers at BMW need to get their thumbs out of their ears because they inexplicably dropped their long running BMW trademark driver oriented cockpit with this generation. Next thing you know they'll switch to front wheel drive and drop their longitudinally mounted inline 6 but, hey, at least they'll always have a bite taken out of the armrest!
Fortunately some manufacturers are starting to get it. The best armrest situation I've sampled to date is in the current generation VW Rabbit/Jetta twins. The center armrest in these cars is adjustable for reach and height. Very cool! In these VWs when you ratchet the armrest up and slide it forward you can plant both elbows in completely symmetrical positions while keeping your hands within reach of the steering wheel for the ultimate in relaxed cruising. The armrest can also be pushed back and out of the way for a day of autocross as well.
The 2010 Mazda 3 is another prime example of a manufacturer giving the center armrest its due respect. The armrest on this new model is adjustable forward and backward and is very padded which feels great on the elbows. It lacks the height adjustment that the VWs give you but it feels a bit sturdier in return. This is a significant step forward from the last generation Mazda 3 which had a center armrest that was too far back and too hard to be useful. You can tell by the goofy grin that this new armrest has made the Mazda 3 the happiest car on the planet!
Honda took a slight step back in this department with the mid-cycle update on the Civic. The center armrest was adjustable in 2008 but is completely fixed in place for 2009. The Civic still gets 8 out of 10 in this department though because the armrests are padded and the fixed position of the center armrest is high enough and far enough forward to be comfortable without getting in the way of shifting.
Why does this armrest rant matter to you? So next time you're out car shopping you can tell the Ferrari dealership, "No thanks, I'll take the Lamborghini so I can rest my arms."