The Safest Cars On The Road As the 2000 car-buying season begins, we help you find the car, truck or van that will best protect you in an accident.
(MONEY Magazine) – Twenty years ago, U.S. auto industry executives, convinced that customers didn't really care about a car's safety record, were fond of saying "safety doesn't sell." What a difference two decades make. Car-safety statistics, once considered irrelevant, have become centerpieces of auto ad campaigns.
More than the rhetoric has changed. Today, as a driver or a passenger, you are much safer on the road than you were 20 years ago, thanks in part to improved safety equipment and a nationwide crackdown on drunken driving. Highway traffic deaths have dropped from 3.9 per 100 million miles traveled in 1977 to 1.6 in 1997 (the latest date for which figures are available).
Despite that remarkable progress, there are still some 40,000 highway deaths a year in America. And while avoiding an accident is what everyone hopes to do, walking away from one is the bottom line.
Although automobiles are now safer on average, not all vehicles--even those of similar price and size--will protect you equally well in an accident. That's why you should consider crash-test results and safety equipment when you shop for a new 2000 model. To make doing so easier, we've rated the 90 models that have been adequately tested by the government or the insurance industry for crash protection. You'll find those ratings and detailed safety information on 112 different vehicles in the tables beginning below. But first, here are general rules on what makes a car safe.
WHAT MAKES THE DIFFERENCE. Size matters. "In most cases, you're safer traveling in a bigger, heavier vehicle than in a smaller and lighter one," says Kim Hazelbaker, senior vice president of the Highway Loss Data Institute (HLDI). In fact, you're twice as likely to die in an accident if you're in a small car than if you're in a larger one, according to HLDI statistics.
In part, that's because big vehicles have more space for a "crumple zone," a section of the car or truck's body that can be crushed from the front or rear without damaging the passenger compartment. Plus, in a two-car collision the laws of physics dictate that the lighter vehicle will almost always sustain more damage than the heavier one.
Second, four-door vehicles are safer than two-door models. The reason: Four-door cars have center posts, known in the industry as B pillars, and that extra pillar strengthens the entire structure.
Finally, even though your vehicle's structural strength is the most important determinant of how well you'll be protected in a crash, extra safety equipment can help you avoid an accident and survive one. Anti-lock brakes, front air bags and other features once found only on expensive models are now standard on most. Other worthwhile features, such as side air bags and retracting seat belts, are usually available only on luxury models or as options--which means you'll likely have to spend more for maximum safety. For more on which safety options are worth paying for, see the box opposite.
WHAT YOU SHOULD KNOW ABOUT YOUR CAR'S HISTORY. Even before you consider a model's options, you'll want to check out a vehicle's safety record: federal government crash tests, insurance industry crash tests and real-world accident experience. Those results, which are the primary determinants of our safety ratings, are listed in the tables that start on page 152.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) crashes most new models into a wall at 35 miles per hour and awards one- to five-star ratings based on how well the vehicle protects the driver and front-seat passenger. Five stars mean your chances of serious injury in such a crash are 10% or less, while one star means the risk is 46% or greater. NHTSA gives similar ratings for your risk of injury when another vehicle hits you broadside. NHTSA excludes most luxury models from both crash tests because of their high sticker prices and relatively small numbers on the road.
The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), a research organization funded by the insurance in- dustry, conducts a slightly different front-end test. In this "offset" test, cars hit a barrier at 40 mph from an angle instead of straight on. The ratings--also for occupant protection--are good, acceptable, marginal and poor. Vehicles that receive a top mark for both driver and passenger protection are given a "Best Pick" rating.
Safety experts agree that all crash tests give consumers useful information. But, says Gerald Donaldson, senior research director of the lobbying group Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, "The offset tests by the Insurance Institute come closer to approximating what happens in most real-world crashes."
Two important caveats: NHTSA and IIHS crash-test results generally date from the year when the vehicle was last redesigned. In addition, both ratings give you an idea of how a model compares to other similar vehicles, not all vehicles. A minivan with a four-star NHTSA rating, for example, would be safer than a four-star compact car.
A third source of safety information is the accident database kept by HLDI, an insurance-supported sibling of the Insurance Institute. Because these data measure how often insurers pay injury-related claims for each model, they reflect how vehicles fare on the road. The injury index includes all vehicles, with 100 representing the average; the lower the index number, the safer the car (for the average index for your model's class and size, go to www.carsafety.org).
A ONE-STOP SAFETY CHECK. To devise our one- to five-star safety rankings for the 2000 models, we consulted with government and insurance industry auto safety experts as well as public interest lobbying groups on how best to combine this safety data. We weighted the crash-test results as a whole more heavily than the accident results because crash data is more up to date. (Accident data is as of 1997.) And because twice as many fatal accidents involve front- as opposed to side-impact crashes, the combined results of the NHTSA and Insurance Institute front-crash tests count for twice as much in our overall ranking as the side-impact tests do. Finally, we gave bonus points for standard side air bags, anti-lock brakes and retractable seat belts.
While we couldn't rank any of the 16 major models that have been redesigned for 2000, we profile two such models with a long history of safety in the box on page 154.
Our ratings confirm the big-car advantage. Only one of the 22 small cars we looked at gets a five-star rating, while three of the 13 minivans do. Although 10 models receive top safety grades, the following five are our picks for the safest in their category.
Luxury car: BMW 540i. NHTSA avoids the budget-busting expenditure of buying and crashing expensive luxury models such as the $51,670 BMW 540i. So we graded this model solely on the Insurance Institute crash tests and HLDI real-world accident results. In both measures, this four-door BMW sedan excelled, receiving top scores in all aspects of the offset crash test. As you would expect at this price level, the car is loaded with standard safety equipment, including an innovative side air bag designed to protect against head injuries. Such extras gave the BMW a slight edge over the competing Lexus LS 400, which is the only other luxury cruiser to get our five-star rating.
Minivan: Toyota Sienna. Safety is especially important to family-oriented van buyers. While three minivans get top safety ratings from us, the Sienna, which starts at $21,968, was the only one to get the Insurance Institute's Best Pick rating. The Sienna also tallied a perfect score in the NHTSA front-impact crash test and a near perfect score in the side test. The $23,400 Honda Odyssey and the $21,415 Ford Windstar minivans also racked up scores that were among the highest of any of the vehicles we rated.
Sport utility: Toyota 4Runner. This mid-size sport utility is not only tops in safety but also a good value. The SUV received an overall good rating in the Insurance Institute offset test and five stars for both the front and rear seats in the NHTSA side-impact test; in NHTSA's front-crash tests, the 4Runner received four stars for protecting the driver, five for the passenger. Those scores gave the SUV our top rating. The four-wheel-drive 4Runner starts at $24,098; the better-equipped SR5 model has a list price of $27,400. Two other sport utilities--the Mercedes ML320 and the Lexus RX 300--get Best Pick ratings from the Insurance Institute, but have no injury figures. Therefore, we didn't have enough data to award them a MONEY rating.
Small car: Volkswagen New Beetle. Even though small, two-door cars typically afford you the least protection, VW's reincarnated Bug is a notable exception. The $15,900 New Beetle is the only small car to get MONEY's five-star safety rating. The Beetle is also the only car in its class to avoid any damage to the passenger compartment in the Insurance Institute's front-crash tests--and therefore the only one to earn the group's Best Pick designation. In NHTSA tests, the Beetle gets four stars each for driver and for passenger safety in front-end crashes, five stars for front-seat occupants and three for rear-seat ones in side-impact tests--a very high combined rating. The New Beetle's standard equipment includes anti-lock brakes, a side air bag for the driver (an option for the front-seat passenger) and retractable seat belts.
Mid-size car: Volvo S70. Volvo was one of the first companies to realize that safety sells. A look at the safety statistics reveals that there's plenty of substance behind the talk. The Volvo S70 is one of just three mid-size cars to get our five-star safety ranking, thanks to strong crash tests and standard side air bags. Of course, you do pay for that peace of mind; the S70 starts at $27,500, vs. sticker prices in the teens or low $20s for most other mid-size cars. The Insurance Institute rated the Volvo's structure just acceptable but still gave the S70 a Best Pick rating because the retractable belts and front and side air bags kept crash dummies from any likely injuries.
REPORTER ASSOCIATE: ELYSSA YOON-JUNG LEE