How to Buy a Safe Car

Among newer technologies, forward-collision warning systems and adaptive headlights help reduce crashes the most.

In surveys to gauge new-car buyers' most-wanted features, fuel economy and reliability often trump safety. But at Kiplinger, we think safety is paramount. Safety accounts for more than one-third of the possible points in our annual new-car rankings. Here's how to pick the safest vehicle and choose which protective features are worth the extra money.

Crash tests. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety both conduct frontal, side and rollover tests, but they do them differently. In NHTSA’s frontal-crash test, a car runs into a wall that spans the vehicle’s entire width. NHTSA awards up to five stars for driver- and passenger-side results. IIHS, however, has two frontal tests, both on the driver’s side. The moderate overlap test uses a barrier that covers 40% of the car’s width and the small overlap test uses a smaller barrier that strikes just one-fourth of the width. The organization’s top rating is “good.”

NHTSA also awards up to five stars for side-impact and rollover safety as well as a five-star overall rating. IIHS conducts side- and rear-impact and rollover tests and awards a Top Safety Pick rating to vehicles that score a “good” on four out of five tests. After adding the small overlap test last year, IIHS began awarding a Top Safety Pick+ designation to vehicles that do well in that test as well as the others. Not all vehicles have undergone the new test yet, but 20 models have made the TSP+ grade. It’s best to look for a car that scores well on tests from both NHTSA and IIHS.

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Along with good crash-test ratings, look for as many airbags as possible. Most new vehicles have six (two front, two front side, and two head-curtain airbags extending from the front to the back seats). Knee airbags and rear (back-seat) side airbags are becoming more widely available. The government required electronic stability control for all new passenger vehicles, starting with the 2012 model year.

Visibility. The government has delayed a requirement to make backup cameras standard equipment, but NHTSA Administrator David Strickland says the agency will soon add the feature as a “recommended technology,” which will prompt more carmakers to offer it. Rearview cameras are now most likely to be offered on luxury cars or a model’s top trim level. Honda includes a backup camera as standard equipment on every Accord, Civic and CR-V. Otherwise, you’ll pay about $1,500, on average, for a backup camera as part of an options package.

Active safety. Studies by IIHS show that among newer technologies, forward-collision warning systems and adaptive headlights help reduce crashes the most. Forward-collision warning systems use sensors to alert you if you’re approaching the vehicle in front of you too quickly. More-advanced versions include automatic braking, so if you don’t heed the warning, the vehicle will brake on its own. Once found only on luxury models, this feature is now available on the Chevrolet Malibu ($395 with lane-departure warning), Honda Accord (standard on EX-L and higher trims) and Ford Fusion ($995 in a package that includes adaptive cruise control and automatic braking).

Adaptive front lighting systems adjust the headlight beams as you steer, giving you a better view in the dark. Standard on most BMWs and available on most Mercedes-Benz and Volvo models, adaptive lighting is making its way to less-expensive models. It’s an option on the Mazda CX-5 crossover and Mazda3 sedan (the price depends on the trim level), and it’s standard on the 2014 Mazda6 Grand Touring model.

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Jessica L. Anderson
Associate Editor, Kiplinger's Personal Finance
Anderson has been with Kiplinger since January 2004, when she joined the staff as a reporter. Since then, she's covered the gamut of personal finance issues—from mortgages and credit to spending wisely—and she heads up Kiplinger's annual automotive rankings. She holds a BA in journalism and mass communication from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She was the 2012 president of the Washington Automotive Press Association and serves on its board of directors. In 2014, she was selected for the North American Car and Truck Of the Year jury. The awards, presented at the Detroit Auto Show, have come to be regarded as the most prestigious of their kind in the U.S. because they involve no commercial tie-ins. The jury is composed of nationally recognized journalists from across the U.S. and Canada, who are selected on the basis of audience reach, experience, expertise, product knowledge, and reputation in the automotive community.