DN Staff

November 6, 2000

14 Min Read
Cups not runneth over

If you drive a car, chances are at some point you've had a complaint about your cupholder. My drink sloshes around. It doesn't hold this big cup. It doesn't hold this small cup. It's too far forward. It's too far back.

When a cupholder underperforms, you might wonder what the engineers who designed it were thinking. Or, if they were thinking at all. But the fact that the majority of today's cupholders perform as well as they do-some are extraordinary-is testimony to the creative talent of the engineers who design them. Although these devices seem simple enough, in the design process engineers must wrestle with an insanely complicated set of trade-offs, including:


Cup stability





And it's getting worse.

Monster cups. "Over the past few years, the number of different size and shape containers that we have to try and accommodate has virtually exploded," says David Spykerman, an engineering manager at Johnson Controls who holds several patents for cupholder/floor console design. "The problem is that no one container size represents the preferred cup for the majority of car buyers."

From 12-oz cans to supersize 40-oz cups and all kinds of oddball shapes in between, cupholder designers struggle to find a happy medium. "By experimenting with different cupholder diameters and depths, we try to find that single point where the overall performance is optimized. The problem is that the centers of gravity of a tall, skinny bottle and a short, fat cup are significantly different," says Spykerman.

How important are cupholders? According to JD Power and Associates, consumers have marked the cupholder as one of the features that can have a significant impact on their overall satisfaction with a vehicle's interior. In a recent JD Power survey, cupholders accounted fo rapproximately 10% of all interior-related gripes about cars. "A lot of compliants have to do with the location of the cupholder. People go crazy if they have an awkward reach," says Carolyn Picard, a senior manager at JD Power who specialies in component quality and supplier services. Other cupholder beefs: Too close to the gear shift; too small; and too difficult to use. Worst cupholders? European cars have about 3 times more cupholders problems than domestics, says Picard. One possible explanation: Unlike Americans, most Europeans wouldn't be caught dead ordering a take-out expresso.

One solution is to design dual cupholders, each with a different diameter. That way, you can guzzle your Big Gulp while your passenger sips on a Perrier. Adjustable cupholders, which feature dividing arms, elastomer tabs, ratcheting devices, spring-loaded flaps, and other devices to help them conform to a variety of cup sizes, are another way to skin the cat.

Not every idea works out. A few years back, some clever engineers put a tab in the bottom of a cupholder, presumably to hold bottles and cans firmly in place. Problem was the mechanism worked a little too well-it punctured holes in polystyrene cups.

Accessibility-not only to the cupholder itself but also to the stuff around it-is another requirement that engineers routinely grapple with. The preferred location for cupholders is in the center console, or so-called "sweet spot" between the front seats-but other critical components normally take precedence. "We can influence location, but the ultimate placement of a cupholder is driven by other factors like armrest position, shifter, park brake, and so on," explains Spykerman.

Cupholder depth is also sometimes affected by the need to ensure proper air flow, since the ducts run through the console. Not surprisingly, engineers like to design cupholders for pickup trucks, and pickup-truck based SUVs, which have the gear shifter located on the steering column.

People may like their cupholders, but not always enough to want to look at these big, gaping orifices when they're not in use. In fact, concealed cupholders are practically a requirement in some luxury cars.

The straightforward approach is to slap a lid on a stationary or fixed cupholder, which in its simplest form is nothing more than a molded-in opening. Major benefit? It's a cheap design. Fancier, articulating cupholders fold out of the way when not in use, freeing up real estate and lending what automakers call a "luxury look" to a vehicle. But they pose different kinds of challenges for designers. "Many of these articulating designs have to fit into narrow, shallow spaces," says Spykerman. "It can be tricky to design a mechanism that deploys into a full-size cupholder, and do it reliably trip after trip through the take-out window."

He's not kidding. In fact, according to one engineer, the snare-like mechanism of one early cupholder design trapped not only cups, but also the fingers of several thirsty drivers.

Pins, sliders, linkages, and cams facilitate the required linear or rotational motion of these articulating designs, but increase the complexity. "The more moving parts you have, the more problems you're likely to encounter," says engineer Mark Clawson, assistant brand manager, Cadillac DeVille, who has worked with cupholder designers. "You have mating concerns, friction to worry about, and assembly issues. If at all possible, design engineers try to limit the number of parts that make up a cupholder."

To heighten the perception of quality, designers frequently use dampers-either viscous or air-to control the motion of an articulating design and reduce vibration and noise levels. Coming up with the overall balance of spring load and mass, and position relative to the pivot point and dampened position is no piece of cake, either.

The last thing anyone wants is to do is put a supersize drink into a cupholder that seems rickety. But despite the fact that they typically feature slender arms and levers, cup stability is actually not the biggest concern with these mechanisms. It's people, who sometimes brace their hand on the cupholder as they reach into the glove box or lean across the front seat. "It's not uncommon for a cupholder to see a 100-lb load, and we have to design for that," says Spykerman.

Coming up with a design that meets all of these requirements adds to the cost, which is the ultimate driver for every cupholder design. According to one auto engineer, the budget for the most elaborate cupholder is a mere $15. Even that figure isn't always a given. Last-minute design changes and budget cuts have resulted in the quick substitution of a cheaper design, which is usually less functional.

Taking all of these factors into account, it's little wonder that cupholder engineers are frequently forced to make compromises in their designs. It blocks dials on the instrument panel. It doesn't hold the biggest cup. It doesn't hold the smallest cup. It's ugly.

But along the way, they make every effort to optimize for the attributes deemed most important for a particular customer segment. It may sound like the classic stereotype, but market research data shows that people who drive pickup trucks order bigger drinks. Luxury car drivers don't like to see their cupholders. And so on.

"No one cupholder is going to please everyone," says Spykerman. "But if we're doing our jobs right and understanding consumers' needs, we're making the right trade-offs."

What were they thinking?

Spills while driving?

Adorable, yes.

Functional, not in the least.

Despite good intentions, even the best efforts of engineers sometimes fall short. That's certainly the case with this after-market Godzilla cupholder from Japan. While it might get high marks for cuteness, three engineers on our staff couldn't figure out exactly how it works. In addition to the mysterious instruction to "push" on a fixed portion of the plastic assembly (possibly a translation error?), the engineers who designed it apparently forgot to include a way to mount it to something in a car.

If you've ever been to a fast-food takeout window, we're just betting that you have a good cupholder story. Send us your accolades or the messy details-including a technical description of what you feel are the relevant design features or flaws-to [email protected]. If we publish your submission, we'll send you a really cool Design News mini-flashlight that stores perfectly in-what else?-your car's cupholder.

World's greatest cupholders road test

If you drive cheap, old cars like the people we know, you've probably been wondering what really great cupholders are like. To answer that question (really, an excuse to drive new cars around while drinking cappuccino), we asked auto industry engineers to reveal to us their favorite designs. Armed with names of their top five picks, we visited Boston-area car dealers-toting various bottles, cans, and cups-prepared to put those cupholders through their paces.

Just like actual cupholder engineers, we experimented with different container sizes, drove aggressively, turned corners fast, and braked hard. The only difference is that a professional cupholder test drive requires two engineers-one to drive and one to watch. In their case, the cups do double-duty, because we're told the watcher usually gets sick from looking down the whole time.

As is true with so many other things in life, our testing quickly revealed that no one cupholder is all things to all people. Most, however, are pretty good-especially in light of the horrendous constraints designers face. Admittedly subjective, here are our test criteria and critiques of some of the world's best cupholder designs.

Flexibility testEvaluate whether cupholder can accommodate various size and shape containers. (Industry benchmark is two, extra-large 32-oz cups side-by-side.) We also tested a thirst-slaking 40-oz cup, and a plethora of other popular container sizes. They included: a 12-oz can; 16-oz single-shot Starbucks espresso cup; 12-oz coffee cup; variety of nonstandard size and shape 0.5l PET bottles; 24-oz sport drink bottle; Starbucks refillable insulated plastic mug (no handle); and a small juice box. Straws included.

  • Moisture testEvaluate cup stability. Fill a 32-oz and 16-oz cup full of water and a tall skinny 24-oz bottle half full of water and insert into cupholder. Drive fast on rough pavement, take high-speed turns, and brake hard.

  • Functionality testEvaluate overall ease-of-use and performance. Using containers described in (1), attempt to drink and drive one-handed; evaluate force to remove container from cupholder; insert container into cupholder without looking. If cupholder is articulating or adjustable, evaluate whether motions are refined or sloppy.

  • Interference testEvaluate cupholder location and space requirements. Using containers described in (1), check accessibility not only to cupholder, but to dials/buttons on instrument panel, parking brake, and other critical functions. If unconcealed, check whether cupholders hog useful space.

Cupholder typeArticulating, concealed

Car make/model1999-2001 Ford Taurus LX, SE

Basic operating principlesLocated in the center console, the arm of this molded cupholder can be moved from out of the way into a cupholder position. It detents in several positions, essentially "snugging" the container into a secure position.

Comments Back to basics. Rather than committing to two fixed cupholder diameters, this clever design converts a generous 6.5x4-inch bin for change and stuff into two cupholders in combinations of sizes. While it flunked the test on two 32-oz drinks side-by-side, the design is sized perfectly for two smaller drinks, as well as the mondo 40-oz cup (at this point, though, it basically becomes a single cupholder). To their credit, the engineers who designed this cupholder say they had a devilishly narrow envelope to work within.

Cupholder typeTriple, combination concealed and exposed cupholder

Car make/model2001 Ford Sport Trac

Basic operating principlesLocated in the center console, this triple cupholder (though only two openings are usable at one time) is a basic, molded-in, fixed design. Two exposed cupholders (one with elastomer tabs on inside diameter) sit side-by-side; a third, concealed cupholder has a hinged lid that doubles as a notepad holder.

Comments Two drinks and popcorn, too, sort of. Only cupholder we tested that accommodates all bottles, cans, and cups (even a juice box!) with no spills. Dual cupholders comfortably hold two 32-oz cups, elastomer tabs allow snug fit for smaller cup sizes. The tub-like, 3.5-inch-plus diameter cupholder was one of only two designs we tested that could accommodate the 40-oz drink container, although a tall straw poking out of the cup gets in the way of other stuff. While not the most elegant-looking, the exposed cupholders are handy for storing spare change, candy wrappers, and unpaid parking tickets.

Cupholder typeArticulating, concealed

Car make/model 2001 Dodge Caravan, Dodge Grand Caravan, Chrysler Voyager, Chrysler Town & Country

Basic operating principlesLocated on the center stack of the instrument panel, these dual cupholders deploy using a dampened push-push mechanism. Spring-loaded, slide-out drawer with integral ash tray/ change holder extends to reveal two articulating arms. A ratcheting device adjusts the diameter of the cupholder to accommodate different cup sizes.

Comments Never go thirsty. This vehicle has more cupholders than we could count on two hands. We only had time, however, to evaluate the two for the front-seat passengers, which easily accommodate two 32-oz cups side-by-side. But any container taller than a 12-oz can blocks access to instrument panel controls-a major problem when you gotta turn the heat down. (Engineers partially addressed this problem by lowering the cupholder by 1 inch in the 2001 model.) Racheting device adjusts cupholder diameter from 2.5 to 3.5 inches for snug holding of most container sizes, including a juice box.

Cupholder typeArticulating, concealed

Car make/model 2001 Cadillac Seville STS, Deville DTS

Basic operating principlesLocated in the center console, these dual cupholders deploy using a dampened push-push mechanism. A cam assists the mechanism as it retracts, allowing cupholder to take up less room when stowed. Elastomer fingers on the inside diameter of cupholder accommodate different cup sizes.

Comments Simple, but it works. The two 3-inch-diameter cupholders effortlessly accommodate all container sizes, except the 40-oz cup, although we're just betting Cadillac drivers prefer bottled water. Elastomer fingers hold drinks stable, but so rigidly that we literally had to yank on the 32-oz cup to remove it (but heck-we need two hands to simply hold a full cup!). Dampened mechanism produces smooth motion. Easy access to cupholders, which conceal nicely when not in use.

CupholderCombination fixed and articulating, concealed

Car make/model2001 Mercedes E-Class, 1994-2000 C-Class

Basic operating principlesLocated in the center console, this hybrid design consists of a fixed, molded-in cupholder and an articulating cupholder, which operates on two planes. The spring-loaded assembly unlatches and rises vertically about three inches, uncovering the fixed cupholder in the lower frame. When the base of the cupholder clears the rim of the storage compartment, vertical motion stops, and the assembly rotates horizontally 130 degrees clockwise. Both motions are mechanically damped. Two spring-loaded flaps on either side of the articulating cupholder deflect to accommodate various cup sizes.

Comments Big wow factor here. Fixed cupholder accommodates only bottles or cans with 2.5-inch diameter or less and no tapered cups. The 3.25-inch-diameter articulating cupholder comfortably accommodates up to a 32-oz cup, and the spring-loaded flaps ensure snug fit. Motion is smooth, really smooth. Cleaning could be slightly problematic (don't even think about chocolate malt), and we sure wouldn't want to drop a bowling ball on this mechanism.

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