The cupholder in the BMW 6 Series is an alloy sculpture that seems worthy enough to hold some form of grail
The cupholder in the BMW 6 Series is an alloy sculpture that seems worthy enough to hold some form of grail. Click image to enlarge

Article and photos by Michael Clark

Photo Gallery: In search of the true Canadian cupholder

Welcome to gridlock, Canadian-style.

It’s not a snarled Lion’s Gate Bridge, or a ten-car pile-up on the QEW; it’s a Winnipeg Tim Hortons. Actually, it’s probably every Tim Hortons outlet across this land, between the hours of 7 and 9 a.m. in their respective time zones. It’s 8:37, and I’m jonesing for my large double-double.

I’m not alone. At this particular location, the parking lot has its own bylaw rule. Forget about parking on the north side of this Timmy’s; dual makeshift lanes have been marked off in that yellow-lined real estate, to accommodate the morning rush. Patrons are requested to merge into a single lane to place their drive-thru orders. You can always tell the edgy ones; if you take a five-second lapse of reason, your spot in line quickly evaporates.

A few more cars, and an unintelligible squawk from the speaker informing me to either “please drive ahead” or “peas strive for bread”. And there it was: one dollar and 44 cents of grey-matter jolt. Sure, the Roll Up The Rim promo is a nice touch, but the true prize is the fuel. One of my favourite conspiracy theories is that co-founder Ron Joyce wasn’t a Hamilton police constable; he was, in fact, a research chemist employed by CSIS to concoct a potion to subdue our nation. Ask yourself: when was the last time you protested on Parliament Hill? Or at the Legislature? Or even in line at the bank? (Slurp!) Um, I wonder which vehicle has the best cupholder for my Timmy’s? Yeah, that’s what I wonder.

Energized, I came up with a plan. Insert my newly-drained large Timmy’s cup into as many new vehicles as possible, thanks to the caffeine burst. The evaluation would address vehicles from every class, as well as every stature. Would the common man or woman be forced to deal with wiggly cups and java stains? Might those of lofty transportation station have a better grip on this coffee conundrum? And will I be asked to Please Play Again?

The Saturn Outlook cupholder uses rubber nodules to hold a beverage in place
The Saturn Outlook cupholder uses rubber nodules to hold a beverage in place. Click image to enlarge

The concept of a proper vehicle cupholder is a relatively new innovation. The open glovebox door was the first beverage station, followed by cheesy aftermarket plastic units. Some would clip to the top of the door, while others were mini-consoles, with provisions to secure them with the centre seat belt of a front bench. These early methods had one thing in common: they quickly dumped the hot or cold liquid onto your pants when the vehicle was put into motion. It wasn’t until the golden age of the minivan that the concept of a built-in cupholder came to prominence. Today, the task of designing a cupholder to accommodate every possible beverage container seems daunting. Have we become a people more concerned with convenience than turn-in and power-to-weight ratios? Of course we have. Perhaps it all started with power steering. Vehicles have become increasingly easier to manoeuvre, which affords the driver the ability to multi-task. No one should be multi-tasking behind the wheel, but we’ll have to save that discussion for my next rant.

I decided on a few parameters. While the offering of optional heated cupholders to the masses, such as those in the 2007 Chrysler Sebring, is a worthy innovation, this experiment comes down to depth and grip. To be an effective Tim Hortons Edition, the cupholder would have to accept at least half of the large-size cup into its cavity. Once inside the cupholder, the cup would receive manual manipulations designed to mimic the effects of fore and aft movements, commonly experienced during acceleration and braking. Side-to-side movements would be assessed to mimic possible cornering scenarios. While an effective grip would be advantageous, another consideration would be ease of reach. Too much grip could result in spillage when the cup was removed, while too much depth could impede removal of the cup for a red-light swig. (Slurp!) Um, let’s get to work.

The fold-down section of the GMC Sierra/Chevy Silverado bench seat has three healthy receptacles, for fellow workers or a habit on the verge of intervention
The fold-down section of the GMC Sierra/Chevy Silverado bench seat has three healthy receptacles, for fellow workers or a habit on the verge of intervention. Click image to enlarge

Most designers that address the cupholder issue probably have no clue as to what “double-double” means. And yet, there is a surprising amount of innovation at work. Cavity size and depth tend to follow general rules: let’s try to please some of the cups most of the time. When you start to analyze the various grip methods, you realize that the Cupholder Department over at Big Auto Maker isn’t tucked away in the sub-basement; this is a big deal. The majority of today’s cupholders use some form of cinch mechanism. Some are more mechanical, such as the four spring-loaded prongs on the current Civic. Saturn’s new Outlook, and the Jeep Liberty, use a system involving a rubber insert with three flexible nodules for a form-fitting grip. The Chevy Impala has a centre bar that adjusts to grip the cup. The Dodge Caravan, which started the cupholder craze, uses a C-shaped click-cinch method.

Who would have ever thought that the cupholder design could border on art form? The removable receiver on the BMW 6 Series is an alloy sculpture that seems worthy enough to hold some form of grail. The dual console-mount cavities of the Mercedes-Benz CLS 500 saloon seem unusable, until you see the little “Push” button, which extends an upward sleeve for cup containment. Porsche likes to hide its cupholders, such as the twin units behind a dashboard panel sliver in the 911 Carrera. (Too bad the cup position is within close proximity to the audio and/or navi system.) You’ll need a passenger with oven mitts in a Mercedes-Benz SL 550 roadster; there aren’t any cupholders. Some vehicles are meant to be driven to an open-air bistro, instead of being one.

Trucks seem to grasp the cup concept a little better than cars. The fold-down section of the GMC Sierra/Chevy Silverado bench seat has three healthy receptacles, for fellow workers or a habit on the verge of intervention. Same with Toyota, where both Tacoma and the new Tundra possess a cavity that appears Timmy tailor-made. Is the height right? The Smart Fortwo has a stable rubber-tab receptacle, which is practically at floor level. Try as you might, the eyes tend to move downwards for a swig, away from the road in front of you. The add-on holder for the Mini isn’t superstitious; it uses 13 rubber fingers to grab everything from double-doubles to Big Gulps. Most importantly, it is within easy reach, and its unfashionable location mount seems determined to point out that functionality is not always pretty.

The console-mounted cupholder in the Nissan Altima can accommodate three different sizes of drink container
The console-mounted cupholder in the Nissan Altima can accommodate three different sizes of drink container. Click image to enlarge

What was surprising was the fact that elevations in MSRP do not always a great cupholder make. The Toyota Yaris uses a dash-mount system, to the left of the driver. There is good depth, and practically zero wiggle. The Infiniti G35 and M45 make an attempt at a C-shaped cinch panel, which comes nowhere near the cup. How easy is this to fix? Simply walk over to the Nissan side of the showroom, where the 2007 Altima system should cause you to cup your hands together, repeatedly. Three cup dimensions can be accommodated, with one of the cavities being Timmy Certified. The Liberty system would be particularly useful in the ample play/no-cinch-today holes of the Compass and Caliber. Manufacturers need to engage in a little more interoffice mail when it comes to their cupholders. If they aren’t telling each other about something this simple, what else are they missing?

What they could be missing, especially at trade-in time, is a future sale. Most buyers have seemingly more important concerns on their minds when they are signing the papers, such as “Where am I going to get the money to pay for this?” When the new-car smell gets replaced by double-double-drenched carpet in the first week of ownership, the seeds of brand discontent have been firmly planted. The brake pads may last 100,000 km and the coolant may last the life of the lease, but a bad cupholder seems like forever and a day.

It may seem an impossibility to consider a group of auto executives discussing a common cupholder size for Canada alone. Quite honestly, they don’t have to. Much of the work has already been done for the enjoyment of multiple motoring beverages. Many of the systems must be aftermarket supplier-driven, as evidenced by similar technologies in competing makes. As consumers, we simply have to address how we use our vehicles on a daily basis, including our intended intake of stay-awake.

(Slurp!) Um, I think I need another double-double. Yeah, that’s what I think…

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