What are the safest cars on the market these days?

Dear Car Talk

Dear Car Talk | Apr 01, 2003

Dear Tom and Ray:

I live in Savannah, Ga., where the roads are narrow -- often two-lane -- and run through the woods (trees on either side), AND everyone seems to have a NASCAR mentality. They scare me. My question is: What is the safest car currently known to man (no Humvees, or anything armored, please)? Like a five- or six-seater sedan -- any ideas? Thanks. -- Robert, Nervous in Dixie

RAY: Well, in our humble opinion, the safest cars tend to be cars that are parked in their driveways.

TOM: But if you have to venture out, I would say the safest sedans these days are probably the higher-end European cars -- the mid- to large-size Mercedes, Volvos, BMWs and Saabs.

RAY: That's not to say there aren't other safe cars, but those are certainly among the safest. So a Mercedes E320, Volvo S80, BMW 5 Series or Saab 9-5 would certainly do a good job of protecting you if someone plowed into you or you plowed into a live oak. Or a dead oak, for that matter. They all have good passive safety systems, like multiple air bags, seat-belt pre-tensioners and well-protected passenger cages. All of which, of course, are designed to supplement the best safety feature of all -- the good old seat belt, which you must wear.

TOM: If those aren't your cup of tea or aren't in your price range, Robert, we have a couple of other ideas. One is to buy a 2- or 3-year-old version of one of these cars.

RAY: Or you might want to get on the Web and browse the Crash Test section of http://www.nhtsa.dot.gov. Look for cars with 5-star crash ratings in all categories (driver, passenger and side impact). You can also check the Vehicle Ratings area of http://www.hwysafety.org to see how cars rate on offset frontal crashes (NHTSA tests cars in head-on collisions; the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety tests cars hit in the front from an angle).

TOM: But don't compare BETWEEN categories. For example, if the Ford Compensator, a large car, gets 4 stars, and the Daihatsu Gnatsass, a compact car, gets 5 stars, it doesn't mean that you'll do better in the little car. You won't. There are basic laws of physics that apply. If a large object hits a small object, the large does better.

RAY: So, since safety is your primary concern, stick to the medium- and large-car categories, and compare ratings within those categories. And even if you can't afford THE safest car on the planet, at least you'll be able to find cars with good safety records and avoid those that don't score as well. Good luck, Robert.

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