HOW TO BUY THE GREATEST SAFETY FOR YOUR MONEY
(MONEY Magazine) – Valerie Howard believes in air bags. Last May she was driving alone from her home near Fort Lauderdale to her mother's when another driver ran a red light and smashed into the left front fender of her 1992 Dodge Caravan minivan. Her air bag burst open, protecting Howard's head as the van spun 360 degrees and slammed into a tree. The vehicle was a total loss, but the 31-year-old mother of three walked away with cuts and bruises. ''The police told me the air bag probably saved my life,'' she says. Not surprisingly, when the Howards went shopping for a new van, they insisted on an air bag. Fans of today's high-tech safety features aren't limited to drivers who've had a close call, though. In a survey of 400 buyers last spring by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) -- an insurance industry research and public relations group -- 67% called the availability of an air bag a very important factor. It may be that the real risks of driving have finally sunk in. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, two out of three motorists are involved in an accident at some time that injures someone in the car. Manufacturers have responded by selling safety. Chrysler took the lead, installing driver's-side air bags as standard equipment in their minivans in early 1991 -- five years earlier than required by federal regulations -- and then putting company chairman Lee Iacocca in commercials to promote them. For its part, Ford has added both driver and passenger air bags as standard equipment for 1993 on its top-selling model, the Taurus ($15,491 and up). And General Motors has put anti-lock braking systems in 95% of its 1993 cars and light trucks. They prevent a car from going into an uncontrollable skid during panic stops on slippery roads. Assuming that safety is a high priority in your car shopping -- and that you don't have unlimited money -- how should you proceed? Brian O'Neill, president of the IIHS, suggests the following: -- Get the largest car that fits your budget and taste. In collisions between larger and smaller vehicles, occupants of the larger one almost always fare better. , -- In setting safety priorities, pick an air bag over anti-lock brakes. Though there are no firm statistics on anti-lock brakes, most safety experts believe that, while desirable, they are not nearly as important as air bags in preventing injury. Happily, finding safety-equipped passenger cars is getting easier. About two-thirds of all 1993 models come with at least a driver's air bag, and about half of them offer anti-lock brakes. (When passenger air bags are available as options, they cost $500 to $700; when anti-lock brakes are an option, they range from $500 to $1,000.) Such safety technology is still fairly rare among sports utility vehicles and pickup trucks, however. So far, the new Jeep Grand Cherokee -- with list prices ranging from $19,700 to $28,440 -- is the only sports utility vehicle to offer driver's-side air bags (standard in all versions). No pickups have air bags even as an option. -- Check into crashworthiness test results. The purest proof of a car's survivability -- at least in relation to cars of the same size -- is the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration crash tests. Each year NHTSA smashes a total of 30 to 35 of the most widely driven new and redesigned cars into a fixed barrier at 35 mph -- approximating the force of two identical cars hitting head on at 35 mph. The agency then measures the probable head, chest and leg injuries that passengers would suffer, assuming that all available safety equipment was employed. You'll find the clearest interpretation of the NHTSA crash results in the annual Car Book (HarperCollins, $11). Author Jack Gillis, a former NHTSA official and currently director of public affairs for the Consumer Federation of America, combines the data and gives each car either a good, moderate or poor rating in comparison with others of similar size. You'll find a list of top-scoring models through 1992 (test results for 1993 models have not been released yet) in the table above. For real-life safety ratings, you can check the Insurance Institute records of injury claims for 170 models. Those that had a better than average history for their size and body style -- such as the Ford Escort, Dodge Daytona, Saab 9000 and Ford Thunderbird -- appear with a black dot next to their names in the table. For a summary of the results, send a stamped, self-addressed envelope to Safer Cars, Box 1420, Arlington, Va. 22210.
BOX: Crashworthy cars
These vehicles received top scores for safety in Car Book author Jack Gillis' / analysis of NHTSA crash-test results.
SUBCOMPACT -- Ford Escort -- Mercury Tracer Subaru Justy Geo Storm Hyundai Excel
COMPACT -- Dodge Daytona Chevrolet Beretta Ford Mustang Nissan 240SX
INTERMEDIATE Volvo 240 wagon -- Saab 9000 Chevrolet Camaro -- Ford Taurus wagon -- Mercury Sable wagon Honda Accord wagon
LARGE -- Ford Thunderbird -- Mercury Cougar
MINIVANS Chevrolet Lumina APV Oldsmobile Silhouette Pontiac Trans Sport -- Dodge Caravan -- Plymouth Voyager -- Chrysler Town & Country
SMALL SPORT UTILITY Suzuki Samurai
LARGE SPORT UTILITY Jeep Cherokee
SMALL PICKUPS Nissan pickup
-- Model also rated better than average in an Insurance Institute study of injury claims