Cars with high scores in crash tests are hot commodities. Here’s how to size up the best model in your price range.
By Jim Gorzelany
According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, 32,885 people died in motor vehicle crashes in 2010. Although that is the lowest level since record-keeping began in 1949, a vehicle-related fatality occurs an average of once every 16 minutes.
It’s no wonder that 65 percent of respondents in a recent Consumer Reports survey said safety was their top buying consideration, trumping such stalwarts as quality, value and performance. And women, who wield considerable force in family purchases, coveted safety even further with 74 percent rating it as their top buying concern.
The first step in determining the safest models in a given size and price range is to consult the results of crash tests conducted by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. NHTSA is in the process of revamping its five-star rating system, however, so a significant number of 2012 models are not yet represented. For now, the IIHS data is more complete and up-to-date. A good place to start researching which models best protect their occupants in a crash is by checking the Institute’s annual list of “Top Safety Picks.”
To qualify, a car must garner top scores for performance in front, side, rollover and rear-end crashes based on ratings determined by the IIHS’ evaluations (low-volume sports cars and high-end luxury models are typically excluded, however).
It’s a good idea to check which cars on the list offer the most safety features. All cars come with front-impact airbags for front passengers, antilock brakes and, beginning with the 2012 model year, electronic stability control that can prevent a car from fishtailing out of control in sudden handling maneuvers. Look for models that are further fitted with chest-protecting side-impact airbags for front (and in some cases rear) passengers and head-protecting side-curtain airbags that extend across all rows of seats. Some vehicles also include knee-height airbags that are designed to help reduce leg injuries for front seat occupants.
A growing number of models now offer a Blind Spot Warning system that detects and warns of other cars to the side and rear of the vehicle the driver may not see in the side mirrors. Another widely available high-tech feature is a Lane Departure Warning system that monitors highway lane markings and alerts the driver if the vehicle is crossing them inadvertently; a few systems can gently “nudge” the car back into the lane via brake or steering intervention.
Though usually limited to higher-end models, a pre-collision system takes protective measures – including tightening the seatbelts and priming the brakes to full stopping power – if it determines a crash is unavoidable. Some systems will take over and engage the brakes to help avoid a collision.
But keep in mind that no matter how sophisticated a car is engineered, when it comes to safety size still matters. According to the laws of physics, a larger and heavier vehicle will tend to fare better in a collision than a smaller and lighter model. If you’re looking for the latter, it’s critical to choose one that gets top crash-test ratings and offers an above-average assortment of safety features.
Top Safety Picks Under $50,000
These may be out of many buyers’ price ranges, but here’s a list of the models we found that are IIHS Top Safety Picks for 2012 and either come standard with or offer as optional equipment a full array of additional safety features including blind-spot and lane-departure warning systems and collision warning/avoidance systems:
• Audi A6 sedan
• BMW 5 Series sedan
• Infiniti EX crossover SUV
• Infiniti M sedan
• Mercedes-Benz E-Class sedan
• Mercedes-Benz M-Class SUV
• Volvo S60 sedan
• Volvo S80 sedan
• Volvo XC60 crossover SUV