How to Drive a Big Car

The average minivan is now as big as a Humvee. Here are five pointers for taking the wheel of your big-ass American vehicle.

by Vince Steveson
Becki Kozel for Fatherly

When the “original” minivan launched in the mid-Eighties, it was designed as a taller alternative to the family sedan or wagon that would fit easily in a standard garage. The 1984 Dodge Caravan, for example, measured about 14 feet long, which is shorter than today’s compact Honda Civic. (What a difference three decades makes.) The need to accommodate the evolving American family and offer even more passenger and cargo space, and provide stronger crash protection, has caused most cars and trucks to swell.

Take the average minivan today, which is some 17 feet long by over six-feet wide — longer than a HUMVEE and nearly as wide. The term “mini” hardly applies anymore. If you haven’t driven a new car in a few years, it’s easy to feel intimidated behind the wheel of a big car, whether a van, SUV, or truck. Here are a few pointers to get you out of the driveway and onto the road.

1. Take the time to adjust your seat and mirrors.

Adjustments for size are crucial. First, adjust your seat height and angle as soon as you sit down in your Big Car. You’ll want to sit up as straight as feels comfortable, and high enough to see to the edges of the hood—more on that in a minute. Then, adjust your exterior mirrors. The rule of thumb is that a sliver of your car should be visible, with most of the refractory landscape given to surroundings. Sound like a refresher from driver’s ed? The basics are worth repeating.

2. Attack your blind spots.

It’s not you: it’s more difficult to see out of big cars. Thick pillars left and right of the windshield are a staple of most big cars, due primarily to crash regulations and vehicle sturdiness standards, and so windows are getting smaller and beltlines (the height line that delineates window and door) are getting higher. Know that you’ll likely need an extra look left and right before making a turn.

3. Use your camera and your mirrors.

It’s easier than ever to rely on a backup camera to ease yourself in and out of a tight spot. Use your mirrors as an analog check and balance. If your Big Car is equipped with auto-down mirrors, flick the mirror switch to the right and Listen to your backup sensors, too, if you have them. You can generally continue to back up until the final, sustained beeeeep.

4. Remember, you’re the big dog on the road.

Remember, you’re driving a vehicle the size of military machinery. Don’t be the German shepherd that thinks it’s a Chihuahua. Think judiciously when pulling headfirst into a parking spot, and assume there’s less space between you and the wall/barrier/curb than first appears. And remember: Most of today’s Big Cars have electrically assist steering that requires less effort to steer at low (aka parking) speeds.

5. Read. The. Manual.

Driving a big car as it is meant to be driven is not always intuitive. Your contemporary vehicle likely comes with a suite of safety and technology features that are designed to make it easy to maneuver. Read your owners’ manual to see which are equipped on your vehicle, and then turn them on and keep them on. Blind spot monitoring, which lets you know if a vehicle is approaching or in a blind spot, is quickly becoming available on most new cars. Automatic emergency braking and rear cross traffic alert are there to stop you, in case you forget that your Big Car juts out into traffic, fore and aft. Similarly, lane keep assist and adaptive cruise control will keep you on the straight and narrow, and out of harm’s way—in case your focus on the urban assault begins to wander.