It can happen to even the most careful driver: hurriedly squeezing into a parking space, you hear the sickening crunch of plastic scraping against another vehicle or object. No driving trip is complete without parking a vehicle, but it can be a chore that perplexes everyone from driving school graduates to middle-age commuters.
Perhaps you remember struggling to position your parents’ car inside a box of traffic cones for your driving test. Carefully adjusted mirrors, slow movements, and repetitive practice help new drivers pass their test without crushing any cones. Given how often we see cars driving around with scratched or wrinkled bumpers, it’s clear most drivers forget those skills after receiving their driver’s license.
Fortunately, there are ways to make parking easier. Some modern cars are small and maneuverable enough to fit into spaces that SUV drivers can only dream of. Technology is helping, too, with camera and sensor systems to help drivers keep tabs on obstacles around their vehicle. And for the truly parking-impaired, some manufacturers even sell cars that can steer themselves into parking spaces automatically.
We’d like to think everyone has the requisite skills to safely maneuver vehicles into parking lots, but if you absolutely can’t park without damaging your ride, check out these vehicles that could help you avoid another insurance claim.
Tiny Feet: Small, Maneuverable Cars
Driving a smaller car means you’ll be able to fit into tighter spaces and still open the door without hitting the adjacent vehicle. They also open up a range of new parking opportunities that are off-limits to large sedans or SUVs. Modern small cars are no longer only suited for buyers on a budget, as most offer almost all the same comfort, safety, and convenience features as larger models.
The “Smart car” remains the vehicle most ideally suited to dense urban parking lots, thanks to its Lilliputian dimensions. At 106.1 inches long and 61.4 inches wide, the Fortwo is the smallest new car you can buy in America. A ballerina-like turning circle of 28.7 feet also makes it simple to slip between rows of parked cars.
Smart ownership does, however, force some compromises. The Fortwo takes 12.8 seconds to accelerate from 0 to 60 mph and can manage just 90 mph. The car only seats two people and doesn’t have much luggage space for grocery trips. Yet if your only criterion is being able to park in the city’s most miniscule gaps, the Smart Fortwo might be just the ticket.
Fiat’s ownership of Chrysler means that new Fiat vehicles are once again on sale in America. The 500 takes up just 139.6 inches by 64.1 inches, which is less space than almost every other new vehicle on the road today and only three inches wider than the Smart Fortwo. The cute hatchback is meant to inject a bit of personality into the small-car experience while providing excellent fuel-economy ratings of up to 38 mpg on the highway. With seating for four and 9.5 cubic feet of luggage space, it’s far more commodious than the Smart. Even so, its petite waistline and tiny 30.6-foot turning radius mean even the most ham-fisted driver should be able to park the 500 without trading paint.
Today’s Mini Cooper builds on the heritage of the tiny, front-wheel-drive car that began with the British-built Mini back in 1959. This small hatch offers a compelling combination of engaging driving dynamics, retro-fun styling, and cutesy add-ons (like Union Jack mirror housings and rally stripes). Slightly larger than the similarly retro Fiat 500, the Mini Cooper is nonetheless ideal for constrained parking spots thanks to its 146.6-inch length and 66.3-inch width.
The MINI Cooper Hardtop and convertible provide seating for four people, but the rear seats are quite small. Still, the chic Mini has gained favor with hip commuters, while weekend racers have gravitated to the more powerful S and John Cooper Works models. With a 35.1-foot turning circle and compact dimensions, the Cooper will easily slot into the tightest of parking spaces and look good while doing so.
You wouldn’t guess from seeing it in person, but the Nissan Cube is a few inches shorter than a Mazda MX-5 roadster. And unlike the two-seat roadster, you can fit five passengers and ample luggage inside the Cube. Japan’s quirky box-on-wheels measures just 156.7 inches long and 66.7 inches wide, casting a smaller shadow than the MX-5 and managing to pirouette in a dainty 33.4-foot turning circle. It’s not as fun to drive as the Mazda, but the Nissan Cube could be a remarkably practical ride for anyone transporting lots of friends or cargo in a bustling urban environment.
All-Seeing Eyes: Advanced Camera Systems
Once toys exclusive to luxury models, backup cameras have now trickled down to nearly every new car. Not only do they help distracted drivers avoid running over bicycles and trash cans, but cameras can also save lives. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reports that each year nearly 300 people are killed in what it terms “backover accidents.” In fact, the federal government may soon mandate that all new vehicles come with either parking sensors or a rear-view camera as standard.
While the majority of these camera systems provide the driver a view of obstacles directly behind the vehicle, some advanced versions permit a wider range of vantage points.
Infiniti EX, FX, QX
Infiniti’s Around View Monitor debuted in late 2007 on the 2008 Infiniti EX35 and later became available on the FX crossover and QX SUV. The innovative system uses four cameras, one mounted on each side of the vehicle, to render a top-down, 360-degree view of the car’s surroundings. It engages automatically when the driver shifts into reverse and can be selected manually at low speeds. The system provides an easy way to locate wheel-bending curbs or other vehicles when parking in tight locations. The feature is optional on the EX and FX but thankfully is standard on the gigantic QX56.
BMW 5 Series, 7 Series, 650i Convertible, X5, X6
In addition to a standard backup camera, most new BMW models are available with two special side-view cameras. The two small cameras located at the ends of the car’s front bumper let the driver “peek” around corners or walls. The system is meant to give the driver an advanced view out of narrow alleyways or obstructed streets, so he or she can check whether there’s any oncoming traffic before pulling out. It can also help spot pedestrians approaching a garage exit. The cameras won’t necessarily help you get into a parking space, but they can help anyone leaving a tight spot or blind garage exit.
BMW 5 Series, X3, X5, X6, 650i Convertible
Nearly every BMW model also offers a Top-View Camera system. Similar to the Around View Monitor offered by Infiniti, the BMW system uses three cameras (the backup camera and two at each side of the vehicle) to permit a view around the rear three sides of the vehicle. The images appear on the car’s iDrive display in the dashboard. Unlike Infiniti’s system, it doesn’t provide a 360-degree view around the car, but it is still useful for avoiding pesky obstacles when reversing or parallel parking.
Don’t Do it Yourself: Cars That Park Themselves
If you’re still having trouble fitting your vehicle between others without scratching or denting body parts, perhaps you need an automatic parking system. These systems use cameras and sensors to figure out the locations of other vehicles and obstacles, then automatically spin the steering wheel to guide the vehicle into an open spot. The driver typically has to modulate the vehicle’s speed by keeping his or her foot on the brake pedal during the procedure. And, of course, the driver is ultimately responsible for halting the car if it’s about to smack a shopping cart or another car.
Lexus LS, Toyota Prius
The first car with such technology in the States was the 2007 Lexus LS. It arrived here in 2006 with Advance Parking Guidance System, which can guide the big luxury sedan into parallel-parking spaces or will reverse the car into normal spaces — in fact, it’s the only such system that can also reverse into spaces in addition to parallel parking. Users must first carefully define the open space with the Lexus’s touch-screen interface, but when three Automobile Magazine editors tested the system on video, the results were less than impressive.
When Lexus began hyping the self-parking tech, Audi responded with a commercial featuring an A4 sliding into a tight parking space and the tag line, “The luxury car for people who can park themselves.” (Fast-forward to today, and Audi sells several models with self-parking technology — but only in European markets.) The Lexus system is available as part of pricey option packages on the LS460L and LS460L AWD, while it is standard on the LS600hL hybrid. A good thing, too, as those long-wheelbase models measure a massive 203.9 inches long. The same system is also offered as part of the Advanced Technology Package for the Toyota Prius.
Lincoln MKS, MKT; Ford Escape, Explorer, Flex, Focus
Ford introduced a more affordable automatic parking technology in mid-2009 called Active Park Assist. It debuted on the 2010 Lincoln MKS and MKT, and 2010 Ford Escape. It won the company a “Best of What’s New” award from Popular Science in 2009. Ford’s system relies primarily on ultrasonic parking sensors to determine the size and location of a parking space and is said to require as little as 24 seconds to park the vehicle. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xW-MhoLImqg)
The technology has since spread to the Ford Flex (models with the 3.5-liter EcoBoost engine only), 2011 Ford Explorer (optional on the Limited trim), and even the new 2012 Ford Focus (a $695 option for SEL and Titanium models). The new Focus is thus the cheapest car in America to offer a self-parking feature. Given the Focus’s small size, though, we wonder how much buyers really need a self-park option.
BMW 5 Series, 650i Convertible
BMW debuted Parking Assistant on the 2011 5 Series in late 2010. It’s available as an option of the 5 Series sedan — drivers of the 5 Series GT are out of luck — and 650i convertible. When the car is driving below 22 mph, Parking Assistant automatically “scans” for open parking spaces that are at least 47 inches longer than the 5 Series. When the driver shifts into reverse, the BMW iDrive interface presents a list of nearby spaces that could accommodate the car. As with other systems, the driver keeps his or her foot on the brake as the BMW steers itself into a parallel-parking spot.
Mercedes-Benz CLS, M-Class
Among the many glitzy features on the 2012 Mercedes-Benz CLS-Class is Active Park Assist, another take on self-parking systems. It’s available as a $970 option on the CLS550 and CLS63 AMG and will also be offered on the 2012 M-Class when it debuts in September. Active Park Assist uses the car’s parking sensors to determine whether an adequately sized space is available; at speeds below 20 mph, a “P” icon and a small arrow appear in the instrument cluster to show an open spot. Once the driver shifts into reverse and pushes the Active Parking Assist button, he or she need only keep the car’s speed below 7 mph as the Mercedes steers itself into the spot. We’d like to see the system join the S-Class feature list, as Mercedes’s ultimate luxury sedan measures a whopping 206.5 inches end-to-end.
Cheating: Get the Valet to Do It
If only there were people employed for the sole purpose of parking your vehicle, then retrieving it when you needed it next. Luckily, there are: parking valets take the hassle out of parking, although they also take a hefty wad of dollar bills out of your wallet. What simpler way to park than to pull up to the valet line in front of your favorite restaurant or club?
Lamborghini Aventador LP700-4
Admittedly, this strategy is out of reach for most people, but it’s a sure-fire way to easy parking. Trust us, if you hand a valet employee the keys to your shiny new Aventador, they’ll make sure you don’t have to worry about finessing it into and out of narrow spaces. No self-respecting valet attendant would hide Lamborghini’s newest supercar in the back lot, so you can be assured that when you emerge from dining or dancing (no drinking, please — this is a 697-hp Lamborghini), your ride will be parked in prime position by the curb.
The cost of entry is, ahem, high. A new Lamborghini Aventador will set you back $379,700 — before any options. And with a combined EPA rating of 13 mpg, you’ll need to bring plenty of cash for premium fuel. But, hey, you get to drive a Lamborghini and park easily in front of the hottest venues. Surely that’s worth the price?