Buy the Safest Car You Can
If you're buying a new car, van, or sport utility, you want something that looks good, can fit in everything and everybody you need to haul and, more than ever, gets good gas mileage. But don't forget a crucial factor: finding a vehicle that can keep you and your family safe.
Traditionally, crashworthiness has been the chief safety measure. How good is your chance of escaping serious injury if this vehicle is involved in an accident? This remains an important test.
But increasingly, new technology that helps you avoid an accident in the first place also is important. Electronic stability control—often known as traction control—can prevent slides and fishtailing from turning into a potential rollover—one of the most dangerous types of accidents. Your ideal vehicle is one that helps you avoid an accident and protects you well if there is a crash.
With more safety information than ever available online, you can narrow your choices to the safest vehicles in your category before you ever take a test-drive. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), Arlington, Va.,—a research organization funded by the insurance industry—chooses its so-called Top Safety Picks in each category. The number of these vehicles now has risen to 35, giving a wide choice. "You don't have to give up a stylish vehicle to get a safe one," advises IIHS President Adrian Lund. "You can have both."
Even some crucial safety equipment is optional.
Read the ratings
Both the Insurance Institute and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), Washington, D.C.,—a federal agency—test vehicles for their crashworthiness. You'll want to look at both NHTSA ratings and IIHS ratings. In addition to front and side crashes, the government ratings have a star system showing how likely a vehicle is to be involved in a rollover accident—a category that accounts for a third of automotive fatalities every year. Most of these rollover ratings are three or four stars, where five is best and one is worst; thus there's not a wide differentiation among models.
New technology that helps you avoid an accident in the first place also is important.
The IIHS tests rate each vehicle good, acceptable, marginal, and poor for both front and side crashes. The ratings also include rear crashes, which usually are less serious but can cause whiplash neck injuries. To get the IIHS best so-called Top Safety Pick, a vehicle has to have good ratings in all kinds of crashes plus offer electronic stability control as standard or optional equipment. "You want to read the NHTSA ratings and our ratings and you want a vehicle that is good in all types of crashes," says Lund. "You don't get to pick what sort of crash you will be involved in."
For all vehicle categories, the Top Safety Picks are listed on the home page for the vehicle ratings and include such models as Honda CR-V among small SUVs, Hyundai Entourage, and Kia Sedona among minivans, and Honda Accord and Subaru Legacy among midsize cars. Toyota Tundra got the top rating among pickups.
Your credit union can help you purchase some new wheels.
Pick your equipment
Among car makers trying to keep costs down for price-conscious consumers, even some crucial safety equipment is optional. Here's a rundown of what is essential and well worth the cost and what may be truly optional if you're watching your budget.
Beyond these options, a whole new generation of technologies is coming along. Most are too new to tell how well they really work. A so-called lane departure warning available from Infiniti and BMW sets off buzzers or lights if you seem to be drifting out of your lane. Adaptive cruise control—which Mercedes-Benz offers on some cars—supposedly keeps you a set distance from the car in front of you. A forward collision warning system senses if you are about to crash into the car ahead and activates the brakes.
Finally, safety specialist Lund has one more piece of advice for car buyers: Don't forget about size. "With the price of gasoline, there is an economic push now to buy very small cars," he notes. "Remember, no matter how good the safety equipment, that you are at a big disadvantage if that very small car hits a much bigger vehicle."
Jerry Edgerton is an automotive writer whose work has appeared in Money and other national magazines. He also is the author of "Car Shopping Made Easy."
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