Cooled seats are becoming more common — but not common enough

The Chevrolet Malibu has evolved into a delightful family sedan, in no small part because of the available ventilated seats.

The end of May signifies a major change in season for motorists around the Philadelphia region.

Yes, Sweaty Back Season will be upon us once more. This time of year, the heat and humidity combine with the cloth- or leather-covered Driver’s Seat to form a squishy layer between Seat and seat. 

That is, unless you’re one of the lucky few who have ventilated or cooled seats in your vehicle.

What They Are: I’m surprised how often I mention cooled seats to friends or colleagues and I'm met with a blank stare. Heated seats are now common enough that most people have encountered them, but cooled seats still surprise people who don’t drive new cars almost every week.

Jason Kavanagh, engineering editor at the automotive site Edmunds.com, explained the phenomenon for everyday people.

Both types have a series of chambers inside the seats. Ventilated seats blow air into the chambers, while cooled seats have the air blow over a cooled surface and then into the seat. Perforations in the seats allow the air to reach the occupant.

“I think the cooled seats would make a much bigger difference where it’s humid,” Kavanagh said.

He added that he’s noted a great disparity of performance among cooled seats.

“Generally, you can toggle up one to three levels, and it’s a huge range of what you get when you turn it on to ‘Max’,” Kavanagh said.

Where They’re Found: Jessica Caldwell, Edmunds.com’s executive director of data strategy, checked numbers and found that cooled seats are actually offered on fewer models now than in 2015, while ventilated seats are a growing phenomenon.

In 2015, 53 models offered drivers and front-seat passengers cooled seats, compared to 46 in 2017. 

Contrasting that, 114 of vehicle models offered driver ventilated seats, and 110 offered them for passengers in 2015. These days, 154 models offer them for drivers, and just one of those does not also offer them for passengers.

Of course, cooled seats are often not a single line item, but are generally tied into a more expensive package, for ease of both production and profitability.

Highfalutin’ No More: As with all technologies, cooled and ventilated seats started on the high end of the pricing scale, then worked their way down the ladder, until buyers like the Lovely Mrs. Passenger Seat could enjoy them in her 2015 Kia Soul.

Granted, she doesn’t really get much opportunity to enjoy the vented seats; she would be more appropriately named Mrs. Passenger Seatsicle. But for Mr. Driver’s Seat, they’re a godsend.

Actually, having both heated and cooled seats is probably better than marriage counseling in many instances. Two people in the same car can certainly have a wide range of experiences.

More at the Low End? So I thought since Kia offered them — here again, as part of a pretty expensive packaging and trim level requirement — and sister company Hyundai as well, throughout much of the lineup, that other carmakers would follow suit. 

Alas, it is not to be.

So, among Mr. Driver’s Seat’s favorite lower-priced models of the last couple of years, which ones offer ventilated seats? 

Kia Soul: As noted above, ventilated seats are part of a trim and packaging setup that significantly raises the price of the car. 

The Kia Optima offers them standard on the SXL trim. The soon-to-be-tested Kia Niro also offers them.

Hyundai Elantra GT: This surprisingly fun little sedan also offers the added bonus of ventilated seats as an option for hot drivers.

Note, though, this doesn’t apply to the Elantra, Elantra Sport, or Elantra Eco models, according to Hyundai press information.

Chevrolet Malibu: This pleasing family sedan has grown immensely in size and maturity with the 2017 model year. The ventilated seats raise my esteem for it as well.

And that’s it for the short list.

Sweaty Favorites: Most of the best less expensive cars don’t offer cooled or ventilated seats, though.

That sad list includes the Toyota Prius, Chevrolet Cruze, and the Fiat 124 Spider.

And surprisingly, asking about the Mazda3 and MX-5, I learned that Mazda doesn’t offer the feature anywhere in its lineup.

Also, I’m scratching the Prius from the must-have list.

I guess I could buy an aftermarket system, but I wonder if I’d be any happier than I am with the Sturgis Family Sienna with the Garmin tacked on the windshield.