Just because a new car boasts a top safety rating and lots of impressive-sounding safety features doesn’t necessarily make it very safe. Effectiveness and availability vary widely. Some very effective features, including backup cameras, now are common in new cars. Electronic stability control (ESC), which helps prevent rollovers, is standard equipment on all new vehicles. Other features, such as the Tesla Model X’s air-filtration “bioweapon defense mode,” seem excessive. But with many of the other safety features that are available, it’s not clear yet how effective they are. Here’s a rundown of today’s safety features and verdicts on their effectiveness…
• Automatic emergency braking. Studies have found that automatic braking can reduce the odds of getting in an accident by more than 25%. Sometimes called “autobrake,” this feature uses cameras, radar or lasers to sense the danger of a forward collision and then automatically slows or stops the vehicle. This technology, available on some high-end vehicles for some time, is becoming available on more affordable cars, often as part of an options package. (The technology should not be confused with the similarly named “antilock braking system,” or ABS, which prevents brakes from locking up.)
Examples: Automatic braking is included or optional on certain versions of the Honda CR-V…Subaru Impreza, Legacy and Forester…Volvo S60, S80, V60 and XC60…Chevrolet Impala…and Chrysler 200.
Warning: Not all emergency braking systems are equally effective. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), a nonprofit funded by auto insurers, gives the Subaru EyeSight system (pictured above) top scores among nonluxury brands, with the Chrysler 200 and Honda CR-V systems close behind. These systems slowed or stopped vehicles in both slow- and high-speed tests, while some other systems were effective mainly in low-speed situations.
Verdict: This is worth having.
• Headlights that turn from side to side with your car. “Adaptive headlights” that turn to the left or to the right when the steering wheel is turned do a better job lighting the road ahead than standard headlights and significantly reduce the risk for accidents. They’re available mainly on luxury cars but are offered as an option on a few mainstream vehicles as well.
Examples: Adaptive headlights are included or optional in some versions of the Mazda3 and CX-5…and Volkswagen Golf and Jetta.
Verdict: Worth getting if you do lots of nighttime driving on curvy roads.
• Systems that warn drivers of potential dangers. It’s impressive to hear about “lane departure” alarms that sound when drivers start to drift out of a lane…and “blind spot” alarms that inform drivers when obstacles lurk where they cannot easily be seen, but an IIHS study has found that vehicles equipped with these do not get into significantly fewer accidents.
Verdict: Choose these only if they don’t add a lot to the price.
Potential exception: A blind spot warning system could make sense for a driver who has limited physical flexibility and difficulty turning to fully check blind spots in the usual manner…or for a vehicle that has very large blind spots or limited rear visibility.
• Less powerful engine that can serve as a safety feature for a teen driver. Many of today’s vehicles, even some moderately priced ones, have breathtaking amounts of power compared with vehicles from even 10 years ago. For example, the Honda Civic Si has 205 horsepower (hp), the Ford Focus ST has 252 hp and the Ford Mustang V-6 has 300 hp—and each of these cars starts below $25,000. Less powerful engines tend to be associated in our minds with low price and good fuel economy, not safety—but buying a modestly powered car can be a low-tech, low-cost way to reduce the odds that a teen will travel at dangerously high speeds.
Verdict: Choose a midsize sedan with a four-cylinder engine and moderate power.
• “Head-up” display. A growing number of cars now can project information such as speed and navigation system directions up onto the windshield, where drivers can see it without moving their line of sight from the direction of the road. That sounds like a great safety feature—accidents can occur when drivers glance down at the dash. But concerns have been raised that projecting information into a driver’s field of view actually could increase the danger by distracting the driver and shifting the focus of the eyes even though the eyes remain pointed forward. And because the information is right in front of the driver, it actually might distract him/her more often. On the other hand, many test drivers who regularly drive with head-up systems swear by them.
Verdict: These systems remain uncommon enough that there is not yet sufficient data to reach a conclusion.
Evaluating Safety Scores
There are two major organizations that evaluate vehicle safety in the US—IIHS and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), run by the US Department of Transportation. Both produce valuable safety ratings—but not every vehicle that earns a seemingly stellar score from these organizations is as safe as car buyers might imagine…
• “Top safety pick” doesn’t really mean “top.” A car that is advertised as an IIHS “top safety pick” hasn’t actually achieved top safety status. There’s a rating above top—the very safest vehicles get “top safety pick-plus” status. These vehicles not only do a great job protecting occupants in crashes—they also have advanced collision-avoidance technology to reduce the odds of getting into an accident in the first place. Pricey luxury cars dominate the top safety pick-plus list, but some affordable vehicles do make the cut.
Examples: The 2015 Mazda3 and Mazda6 and 2016 Mazda6…2015 Subaru Impreza and Legacy, Forester, Outback and XV Crosstrek and 2016 WRX…2015 Chrysler 200…2015 Mitsubishi Outlander…2016 Hyundai Tucson and Sonata…2015 Toyota Prius and Prius V, Camry and Sienna…2015 Honda CR-V…2016 VW Golf, GTI and Jetta four-door models…2016 Scion iA…and 2016 Fiat 500X. Most of these vehicles achieve this status only when optional safety or technology packages featuring emergency braking systems are purchased. (Note that 2015 model year vehicles are listed if the 2016s were not tested by press time.)
• Performing well on crash tests does not guarantee that a car will perform well in all real-world crashes. Automakers know exactly how NHTSA and IIHS test-crash cars—and they design their cars to do well on these specific tests. Trouble is, doing well on these tests does not guarantee that vehicles will do a good job protecting occupants in other types of accidents.
Because IIHS is not a government agency, it says it has greater freedom to modify its tests as it feels necessary. In 2012, it added a “small overlap front” test to find out how well vehicles protect their occupants when the vehicle’s front corner experiences an impact. Many vehicles fared poorly—including some that did very well in the more common head-on collision tests.
Example: The 2015 Kia Forte car received the top five-star safety rating from NHTSA but a score of “marginal” on the IIHS small-overlap-front test. The 2015 Dodge Grand Caravan and Chrysler Town & Country minivans received a respectable four-star score from NHTSA, but the lowest score—poor—on the small-overlap-front test.
What to do: Shop for a car that performs well in IIHS and NHTSA tests.
• A high safety score for a small vehicle does not necessarily mean that it’s safe. If you want a safe vehicle, other things being equal, bigger is definitely better. Don’t be fooled into thinking a small car will do a great job protecting your family because it earned five stars from NHTSA or “top safety pick-plus” from IIHS. Both of those organizations rate vehicle safety within that vehicle’s category. In other words, a small car that earns top safety marks likely is safe compared with other small cars—but it likely isn’t as safe as a large sedan or SUV. When you’re in a big vehicle, there’s simply more metal around you to absorb an impact.
Examples: Most of the vehicles with the highest rates of driver fatalities are small cars such as the Kia Rio…Nissan Versa…Chevrolet Aveo…and Hyundai Accent. The list of vehicles with the lowest death rates is dominated by SUVs such as the Kia Sorento (2WD)…Lexus RX 350 (4WD)…Mercedes GL and M class (4WD)…Toyota Highlander and Sequoia (4WD)…Honda Pilot (4WD)…GMC Yukon (4WD)…Chevrolet Equinox (2WD and 4WD)…Ford Expedition (4WD) and Flex (2WD)…and Mazda CX-9 (4WD). The difference in fatalities between these two groups is massive. While the small cars listed above each experienced at least 86 driver deaths per million registered vehicle years in a recent study, the SUVs each had death rates of five or fewer per million registered vehicle years. (Death rates are based on research by IIHS featuring the 2011 model year and equivalent earlier models. The latest models have not yet been driven long enough to compile sufficient data.)
• A used car from 2010 or earlier might not be as safe as its NHTSA rating makes it appear. The government agency made it significantly more difficult to earn high scores starting with the 2011 model year—but it did not go back and adjust pre-2011 scores downward when it did so.