With safety in mind and adjustable seats a priority, a reader is buying a new automatic for his 4ft 10in wife

Tony Creissen would like to buy his wife a new car. Being petite (4ft 10in), she finds the pedals hard to reach, and Tony is concerned about airbags. She has a licence only to drive an automatic but is an enthusiastic driver. The Creissens have an 11-year-old daughter to consider. Tony has up to £10,000 to spend.

Airbag etiquette is an overlooked area of driver safety. None of us is properly instruc-ted in how to sit comfortably and safely in our car.

An airbag deploys around 200mph, and if you sit too close it will cause damage. Tests carried out at Kettering University in Michigan showed that at a distance of 4in, the deploying airbag exerted a maximum load of 912lb. Increase the distance to 10in and that load decreases to 91lb. So the basic advice is to sit as far back as is reasonably practicable.

If an adjustable steering wheel is fitted, it should be tilted down slightly so that the airbag is less likely to hit the head or neck. Also, the closer someone is to the steering wheel, the less control they will have, as their elbows will whack into the side of their body.

After adjusting the seat so that your feet comfortably touch the pedals, stretch out one arm but do not lean forward. Your wrist should rest on top of the wheel. To avoid injury if an airbag is deployed, you should hold the steering wheel at each side in the nine and three o'clock positions and not hook your thumbs around the wheel, but have them pointing upwards.

A car for the head

The quick answer to this one is to buy a Saab 9000. Mrs R is on the small side and has found this to be the only model with a height-adjustable seat that suits her. But everyone is different, of course, so maybe another Saab is worth a look because of its excellent seats and safety record. In 2.0 turbo guise, it doesn't hang about, either. There is also plenty of room inside for a growing 11-year-old.

What is most important, however, is that the seats are extremely adjustable, making for a comfortable ride. What adds to the driving experience is the clarity of the instrumentation, enabling more relaxed progress. Being a Saab, the car has an impressive amount of standard kit. Every 9-3 has electric windows, a CD player, remote central locking and air conditioning. The Arc models come with climate control and leather trim. Just a quick surf of car dealers turned up a 2003 9-3 2.0t Vector with aluminium trim, a one-owner car that had covered 40,000 miles.

A car for the heart

Alternatively, I would have to recommend that Tony go for another model from Sweden, in the shape of the Volvo S60. Here is another incredibly safe car, which with the 2.0 turbo engine is a touch quicker than the Saab.

Inside, the whole environment is solid and high quality and, like the Saab, has one of the clearest dashboards you could hope to use. Buyers have the option of "comfort" or "dynamic" seats, the latter firmer and more sculpted. Tony and his wife will have to find which is best for a shorter than average frame.

The S60 is roomy inside and comes with plenty of standard kit, although the specifications can become a little confusing. A 50,000-mile 2004 2.0 T SE can be bought from a car supermarket for £9,300, which is great value. In service, the Volvo is likely to be more reliable overall than the Saab, which can suffer more electrical hitches.

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