Which cars are safest when hit by an SUV?

Dear Car Talk

Dear Car Talk | Apr 01, 2003

Dear Tom and Ray:

I was searching the Web to see which cars are safest when they're hit by an SUV. Nobody seems to know. The yo-yos who look at this sort of thing only crash cars into concrete walls. Let's face it, nothing is more frightening than seeing the beady little eyes of an irate soccer mom peering over the steering wheel of a Lincoln Navigator heading toward you. That's what we really want to protect ourselves from. It seems that a lot of traffic fatalities are now caused by an SUV hitting a normal car. So, I want to know which normal car best protects me and my family. -- Damon

TOM: Great question, Damon. But unfortunately, we don't have a great answer for you.

RAY: You're absolutely right in identifying a serious problem. When an SUV hits a car in the side, there are 16 driver fatalities in the car for every one in the SUV. When a car hits a car in the side, there are about eight driver fatalities in the car that was hit, compared with the car that did the hitting.

TOM: There are several reasons for this. Most important are the differences in height, weight and construction. SUVs weigh more. I weigh 170 pounds. If William "The Refrigerator" Perry (formerly of the Chicago Bears) ran into me, I'd go flying. So the weight issue is pretty easy to understand.

RAY: The height problem is also easy to visualize. If a car bumper rams into the side of your car, it's likely to be about at the level of your butt. But if a full-size SUV comes at you sideways, the bumper might be closer to your chest or head. And if the SUV comes at you head-on, it might go right over your bumper.

TOM: And the third reason why SUVs do more damage is because they tend to be built on truck frames -- steel beams on which the body rests. When you ram steel beams into the side of a car, the car doesn't fare so well.

RAY: Fortunately, there's a courageous guy in charge of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration right now. He's an emergency-room doctor named Jeff Runge. And he's pushing hard to get manufacturers to change the way SUVs are constructed, and to get vehicles to "match" better in collisions. But even if he's successful, what do you do in the meantime?

TOM: Obviously, you can buy your own SUV, although that's just continuing the escalation. People will buy bigger and bigger SUVs to out-ram each other until we're all driving M1 Abrams tanks. Try parking one of those in a "compact car only" spot at the mall.

RAY: So, our advice would be to use the government's crash-test ratings, and give particular weight to the "Side Impact" score. NHTSA's side-impact test rams a 3,000-pound weight into the side of a car. So that gives you a pretty good indication of how it might hold up if you do get T-boned by a soccer mom talking on her cell phone in her Navigator.

TOM: To find the ratings, go to www.nhtsa.gov. We looked, and among those with five-star side-impact ratings are the Subaru Outback Wagon, the Mitsubishi Galant with side air bags (SAB), the Lexus ES300, the Volvo S60 and S80, and the Acura 3.2 TL with SAB. There are others, too. Some cars also have side head-curtain air bags, which increase head protection in the event of a side impact.

RAY: Browse the category of car you're interested in, and look for those with five-star side-impact ratings. Good luck, Damon.

Get the Car Talk Newsletter

Got a question about your car?

Ask Someone Who Owns One