Why your cup holders carry a surprising amount of science


When Volkswagen calls the 2019 Jetta “all new,” it doesn’t just mean the chassis, the styling or the driver’s assistance technology. Even the cup holders received a rigorous engineering upgrade.

America’s thirst for places to store a beverage in their vehicles dates back decades; it was only in the early ‘80s that the first viable cup holders built into a family vehicle appeared.  Today, Americans can’t get enough of them; the 2018 Volkswagen Atlas has 17 cup holders and the new 2018 Tiguan has 12. Yes, that’s multiple liquid-leveraging spaces per passenger, but as anyone who’s ever road-tripped knows, you can run out of cup holders before you run out of cups.

It’s been many years since Volkswagen of America actually shipped fast-food soda cups to Germany to ensure future cup holders were robust enough for American appetites. Carsten Scharf, senior manager for concept and design quality for Volkswagen Group of America, says there’s now a continuous loop between VWoA and product engineering to translate customer data into better product solutions.

“We strive to improve each vehicle model to meet the needs and wants of our American consumers,” says Scharf. “To do this we look at our customer feedback, translate that into requirements that will be established for the next model, and then work with our engineering colleagues to have those updates come through in our future products.”

For the seventh generation of the Jetta, Volkswagen designers and engineers looked closely at not just cup holders, but the whole interaction of parts in the center console – an increasingly busy piece of vehicle real estate. Cups sticking up too high can interfere with moving the gear shift; the wrong kind of armrest can take up too much space or be uncomfortable for some drivers.

Volkswagen designers not only updated the Jetta driver and passenger cup holders to make space for a mug with a handle, but also reworked the cup holders inside the backseat armrest entirely. In reviewing feedback that previous model backseat console cup holders were too shallow, VW designers remodeled the feature to allow for a deeper cupholder but still keeping all passengers in mind.

“By updating the materials at the bottom of the cupholder itself to use a softer plastic, it allowed for a much deeper, more efficient feature that was not only more functional, but also maintained the comfort of the center seatback when the console was up,” Scharf says.

It wasn’t just the cup holders that enjoyed an upgrade. The center console “jumbo” box grew in volume, so that it can now hold an item about the size of a full-size touchscreen tablet inside, without blocking the cup holders. Even the placement of new USB ports and a deeper well in front of the gearshift to hold cellphones reflect how people use their cars today.

These updates were based directly on feedback from VW drivers and turning that into the next set of requirements. And doing that correctly means thinking constantly about what’s next and starting early. Although the seventh generation Jetta just hit dealerships, “believe it or not, we are already in the process of defining customer requirements for the 8th generation Jetta,” says Scharf.