America’s Love Affair with Cup Holders Has Reached an Entirely New Level

By: Bridget Clerkin May 14, 2018
The 2019 Subaru Ascent set a record with 19 cup holders, for all those times you need one drink and also 18 more.
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The average American doesn’t get enough hydration. But if you examined the typical vehicle on an American road, you’d never know it.

One could store the recommended daily eight glasses of water in the 2019 Subaru Ascent SUV. They’d still have room for a coffee, tea, juice, soda, Slurpee, slushie, smoothie, another coffee (no sugar), another coffee (black), a chai latte, and a triple venti half-sweet non-fat caramel macchiato, too.

Never one to turn down a multi-tasking opportunity, America has been cup holder crazy for years. The creeping amount of time drivers collectively spend in their cars—topping out at 17,600 minutes, or just over 293 hours, per year—has only increased the country’s appetite for drink-holding options.

But the Ascent marks the zenith, boasting 19 cup holders in all. That’s more than any other vehicle that has ever been brought to mass market. (Its debut at this year’s Los Angeles Auto Show was practically treated as a challenge. It inspired the strange Easter egg hunting quest to find them all.)

All told, the Ascent offers nearly 2.5 cup holders per passenger in a full boat of eight and can conceivably carry up to 950 fluid ounces. That’s 7.4 gallons—which is almost quadruple the amount of liquid a human stomach is capable of holding—per passenger. The absolute saturation of hydration holders begs the question: How many more could we possibly need? And is it possible that we’ve reached peak cup holder?

Glass Half Full?

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The Ascent's mid-row floor cup holders manage to contain liquid that won't fit in slots adjacent to passengers on the vehicle's doors.

It wasn’t always this way.

In fact, when automobiles first hit the scene, they were almost impossible for even the most dexterous driver to navigate. Early cars required the precise and nearly constant use of every available extremity. (Though they’d likely be no problem for the average metal band drummer.)

Using one of those precious hands to cling to a cup of joe while behind the wheel was simply not an option. (Also: Styrofoam cups wouldn’t be invented for another 60 years.)

The Model T and other early cars came with options for enjoying food and drink on the road. The accessories were all separate from the car, stored in the trunk or attached to the sideboard, and were intended more for picnicking once the vehicle stopped.

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Door-mounted cup holders come in handy when the cup holders in front of, behind, or next to a passenger are full.

The first patent for a now-recognizable cup holder design was granted in 1953. The sketch is similar to the modern-day trays that often come on the back of fold-down middle seats. A wooden plank that could be wedged into the seam of the back seat included space for two beverages plus an additional small item.

A confluence of cultural change was responsible for sealing the idea of car-as-beverage-storage in the American psyche. At the same time, fast food culture boomed, highways spread their concrete tendrils across the country, and people began working farther away from home than ever before.

Automakers hadn’t connected the dots just yet. But a spate of entrepreneurs had, offering a selection of plastic holster-like devices that clipped on to a window and easily secured the new pop-top soda cans of the mid-1960s.

By the mid-1980s, Detroit entered the fray. Chrysler included the first mass market vehicle cup holder in its Plymouth Voyager minivan. The design debuted in 1984 and was little more than two small indents in the center console, meant to hold a now laughably small 12 oz. cup of coffee.

Whether by stroke of luck or genius, the concept of putting the holders in minivans only further ingrained them in culture. The multi-task enabler was essentially marketed to the busy soccer moms widely expected to drive the vehicles. By 2007, the coveted drink receptacles had become indispensable, with the number of cup holders available in a car holding more sway over consumers than a vehicle’s fuel efficiency.

Zen & the Art of Driving

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Rear-row cup holders fold down to give backseat passengers the ability to double-fist and double-stow drinks on either side of them.

Indeed, the telltale indentations have become such a common sight that they may seem like little more than an innocuous afterthought. But their widespread social acceptance may conceal an inconvenient truth: drinking non-alcoholic beverages while driving can also be dangerous.

The cognitive, visual, and physical distraction made by finding the proper beverage and managing the hand-eye coordination to sip it while watching the road was found to be just as risky as texting and driving in one recent study. And the move is practiced by nearly everyone behind the wheel. Eighty percent of respondents in another survey copped to drinking (non-alcoholic beverages) while driving.

The competition for attention with the road even insinuated by the presence of a cup holder was enough to keep it out of European sports cars for decades. German automakers in particular are notorious for shunning the concept. They’ve long insisted that the whole point of driving is to drive.

(As one Porsche employee hilariously described, the company responsible for building some of the world’s most beautiful and mechanically-sound automobiles could not figure out how, exactly, to incorporate a cupholder until the late 1990s. Even then, it wasn’t until several U.S. Porsche employees mailed over examples of American convenience store and gas station coffee cups that the German automaker was able to grasp the idea.)

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If you drink multiple cups of coffee per day, you could store them all inside your 19-cup-holder Subaru Ascent... simultaneously.

Still, it’s possible that thirsty American drivers are much more in touch with their emotions than the Germans give them credit for.

Being surrounded by sustenance—or at least the option for it—may well signal to our brains that we’re safe and secure, according to French psychology and marketing specialist, G. Coltaire Rapaille.

The theory stems from the childhood instinct to seek food and drink from our caretakers, making the use of a cup holder tantamount to basking in the warm glow of parental love, Rapaille said.

If that’s the case, Subaru may want to consider renaming the Ascent: the "Italian Mother."

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