The Safest Cars Of 2011
The Tesla Model S is a four-door electric sedan set for sale in 2012. It’ll go 300 zero-emission miles on one charge and get to 60 mph in 5.6 seconds, all for $57,000–a bargain-basement price compared with the $95,900 Fisker Karma or the $109,000 Tesla Roadster. But Tesla Vice President and Chief Engineer Peter Rawlinson knows he’ll have to convince Americans that the car is safe before he has any chance of persuading them to actually buy it.
That’s why the Model S’ bare aluminum body –and its steel bumpers–were on clear display at the North American International Auto Show last week.
“We are baring our soul by showing this,” Rawlinson said. “The body shell is the lightest in its class, but we believe it’s also the safest.”
The Model S won’t be ready to undergo official crash tests for a while. But Rawlinson knows that making a safe vehicle and establishing that perception in consumers’ minds is crucial for any automaker bringing a car to market today. Shoppers aren’t stupid: More than 12,000 people died in frontal crashes of passenger vehicles in 2009 in the United States, the last year with complete data. More than 6,000 died in side impacts and more than 8,000 in rollover crashes.
In a study released this month Consumer Reports found that 65% of consumers rate safety among their top three priorities when considering a car, the highest of any purchase consideration factor. (Quality came in as the second-highest factor, with 57% of respondents saying they cared about it most.) Those safety-conscious drivers would do well to consider the BMW 5-Series. Cadillac CTS or Subaru Legacy –we rate them as three of the safest cars on the road today.
Behind the Numbers
To compile our list of the safest cars this year, we started with all vehicles chosen by the Insurance Institute of Highway Safety as “Top Safety Picks” for 2011. We then excluded all crossovers, SUVs and pick-up trucks in order to limit our list to cars. Then we extracted any model that did not receive perfect scores of “good” in all front-, side-, rear-crash and rollover tests, or any that lacked electronic stability control, which IIHS says significantly reduces crash risk. The cars still standing after all of that are our winners.
Front evaluations involve a 40-mph frontal offset crash and subsequent slow-motion film analysis to assess how well the restraint system controlled dummy movement during the crash. Side evaluations are based on crashes where the side of a vehicle is struck by a barrier moving at 31 mph. In the roof strength test a metal plate is pushed against the roof at a rate of 0.2 inches per second. To earn a top rating for rollover protection, the roof must withstand a force of four times the vehicle’s weight before reaching five inches of crush.
Rear tests use a dummy that measures neck pressure; the test simulates a collision where a stationary vehicle is struck from behind at 20 mph.
The severity of the tests (IIHS tests are more severe than those administered by the government’s National Highway Transportation Safety Administration) has pressured automakers to improve crash scores as well. When IIHS released its first roof crush results in March 2009, only one-third of the SUVs tested had roofs that earned a “good” rating; these days, the majority of SUVs earn top roof strength ratings. Likewise, many cars failed IIHS side tests in 2003; now more than 90% of 2011 model cars, 94% of SUVs and 56% of pickups now have standard head and torso side airbags, all of which enable them to pass the test more easily.
Small and Safe?
The common question surrounding crash safety is whether a tiny car–something like the Smart Fortwo or Ford’s Fiesta–can be safe when pitted against vehicles that weigh twice as much. Both of those cars pass federal safety standards, but the laws of physics are difficult to break.
“Larger, heavier vehicles generally afford better occupant protection in serious crashes than smaller, lighter ones,” the IIHS safety report says. “Even with a Top Safety Pick, a small car isn’t as crashworthy as a bigger one.”
It’s no surprise then that big sedans like the Buick LaCrosse. Lincoln MKS and Mercedes C Class dominate our list. The smallest (and cheapest) vehicle that made the cut: Chevy’s $16,275 Cruze .
Small cars face a tough battle in the American marketplace–due in large part to consumer perception–even if they are rated safe by federal standards, Dieter Zetsche, chairman of the board of management of Daimler AG, told reporters last week at the Detroit auto show .
“I continue to believe that small cars will not be the core of success for any company in the United States,” he said.
One note: Many small cars are especially nimble and flush with advanced, effective safety technology. And good braking and emergency handling can help any driver avert an accident.
Each year Consumer Reports rates the best cars for crash avoidance based on braking tests from 60 mph and handling tests that require steering around an obstacle at high speeds. The Ford Mustang GT, Porsche 911, MINI Cooper S and Lotus Elise, among other small vehicles, topped that list, despite being cut from our final tally.
Indeed there is much to be said for missing a crash altogether.
Slide Show: The Safest Cars Of 2011