Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Top 10 Safe Vehicles for Less Than $25,000

Top 10 Safe Vehicles for Less Than $25,000

Safe bets for low rollers.
Saturn Astra
Scion xB
Hyundai Sonata
Volkswagen Rabbit
Mini Cooper
Toyota Camry
Volvo C30
Dodge Charger
Honda Accord
Mazda CX-7

We live in a nation of unparalleled personal-injury litigation, of warning labels on curling irons that must specify "for external use only," and of waivers that must be signed before engaging in death-defying activities like roller skating. We are slightly more lax, however, when it comes to transportation. Traffic accidents trail only cancer and heart disease as the leading killer of Americans, and according to a recent New York Times article, we rank 11th in the world for fatalities per mile, more dangerous than countries like Poland and Estonia. This is even with quantum leaps in safety technology made and mandated in the past decade; it's fairly tough to buy a patently unsafe vehicle nowadays. Some, however, are safer than others.

Like prime real estate and good medical care, the safest cars go first to those who can pay for them. The latest and greatest safety technologies often debut on more expensive marquis models (think BMW 7-series, Volvo S80, Lexus LS460) and migrate downstream and across the market within a few years, as parts-bin sharing lowers costs and these technologies increasingly become worth their weight in marketing gold. Where Reaganomics failed as an example of trickle-down theory, the automotive industry shines. Save the fat-wallets first, and then get those on more moderate incomes later.

Vehicular safety is focused in two areas: accident prevention and crashworthiness. Factors such as handling, braking performance, and stability control play into the first; airbags, chassis deformation, and crumple zones the second.

Stability control uses data such as steering-wheel position and yaw and roll rates to detect a skid and then uses anti-lock braking and traction-control systems for prevention and recovery. Stability-control systems across manufacturers work with greater and lesser levels of complexity, sophistication, and efficacy, but they do work. Thanks to a mandate from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), every vehicle sold in this country by model year 2012 will be equipped with such a system.

The U.S. government dictates a minimum of two airbags protecting the front-seat passengers in a frontal impact; many vehicles also come with airbags to protect occupants in side collisions. To make our list, vehicles must have stability control as well as curtain airbags for head protection, bringing the minimum to six. Most of these vehicles feature six airbags as standard; for those that don't, we’ve built the option into the price, as we've done with stability control. Several cars meet the $25,000 price ceiling in four- or six-cylinder trim, which we've noted.

NHTSA and its European counterpart, the New Car Assessment Programme (incidentally, also the name of the NHTSA branch responsible for crashing cars), rate the crashworthiness of cars on a five-star scale, five stars being the best score. NHTSA scores cars for driver and passenger protection in frontal impacts and front and rear occupant protection in side impacts; the European NCAP grants cars a single overall protection rating.

Now that you know, choose well, hang a St. Christopher from the rearview mirror, and remember that the single greatest variable in vehicle safety is the loose nut behind the steering wheel.

Saturn Astra 3-door
Estimated base price: $16,000

It's tough to contain our excitement about a car that's actually "Euro tuned." The only difference between Europe's best-selling car, the Opel Astra, and what will shortly turn up on Saturn lots are Gulpinator-sized cup holders, inevitably crappy all-season tires, and a piece of plastic on the hatch marking it a Saturn. It would be tough for the Astra to do worse than the Ion it replaces, but we think it will instead do much, much better, offering a premium product, with premium safety equipment, at a solidly 'Merican price. Compact-car renters rejoice.

Stability control is standard on the sportier three-door, optional on the five at an undisclosed price. NHTSA hasn't thrown one into a wall yet, but the European NCAP crowned the Astra the safest compact sedan in Europe, earning a score better than even the BMW 1-series. Again assuming parity with the European hardware, the stability control system even features "Understeer Control Logic," which knows to increase brake pressure on the inner rear wheel. Neat.

Scion xB
Base Price: $16,230

The '08 xB didn't get a makeover as much as a redefinition; the result is longer, wider, nicer, and a full 582 pounds heavier. With the boost in proportions came an increase in content, including standard stability control and a bump in engine displacement of almost a liter, meaning the traction control might even have wheelspin to contend with. NHTSA gives the xB four stars in frontal crashes, and a full five for side impacts.

2008 Hyundai Sonata
Base price: $18,195

When it was introduced in 2006, Hyundai's current Sonata waltzed up to the dons of the family car segment and popped them in the schnoz, offering astonishing quality and style at a price thousands less than a comparably equipped Accord or Camry. Most notably, the Sonata--even in the cheapest possible configuration--comes with standard stability control.

NHTSA handed the Sonata a perfect five stars in both front- and side-impact protection, one of three vehicles on this list to do so. The V-6 model starts at $21,645 and so equipped, makes merging a worry-free operation. A well-maintained car helps ward off equipment failure and resulting accidents; Hyundai's 10-year, 100,000-mile powertrain warranty will help with that.

Volkswagen Rabbit 5-door
Base price: $18,200

Just over $18K will, in theory, have you sitting in a Wolfsburg-built, five-door Rabbit with stability control. Good luck finding one so priced, however: Floor mats aren't even included at that price. Stability control is a bargain option at $450.

We liked the Rabbit enough to place it at the top of a 2006 small-car comparison, noting its responsive handling and excellent braking performance, both key elements in accident avoidance. The NHTSA hasn't crashed a three-door yet, but liked the five-door enough to grant it four stars for frontal crashes and a perfect score for side-impact performance.

Mini Cooper
Base price: $19,200

Who says small cars aren't safe? Newton? Point taken. We'd still rather be in a svelte vehicle like the Cooper than an Escalade. With its superior stopping ability and driving dynamics, you're less likely to marry your undercarriage with the wheelbarrow sitting in the fast lane. Diminutive proportions aside, the Cooper is a safe machine packed with some of the best construction and safety technologies from parent company BMW. Stability control is a $500 option, whether you select a base Cooper or the turbocharged S model. Sometimes the only way out of a dangerous situation is quick and complete use of your right foot, so the more acceleration that move inspires the better. Make ours an S.

NHTSA has not yet biffed a reworked '07 Mini, which fared just okay the first time around (four stars, and the rear seat was too small to properly seat the crash test dummy); Europe's NCAP, however, gives the new model five stars for passenger protection.

Toyota Camry
Base price: $19,740

Refrigerators are safe, so their vehicular equivalent should be too. And it is. Toyota's best-selling, bread-and-butter sedan has been carefully tweaked over its twenty-four-year lifespan to offer the most family-friendly, innocuous, safe, and least involving experience possible. The only real danger here is falling asleep at the wheel or losing your Camry in a parking lot.

The newly upsized version got perfect marks in NHTSA's front- and side-impact tests. It's commendable that Toyota builds a Camry that sells for under $20k, even if we'd never buy a stripper Camry (like eating boiled potatoes and foregoing a pinch of salt). Strangely, stability control is never standard, but a $650 option. You can pick up a LE V-6 model and still come in at under $25K; with 268 horsepower on tap, your forgettable journey will be forgotten that much faster.

Volvo C30
Price: $23,445

No company's name is more inexorably tied to the word 'safety' than Volvo. Okay, maybe Aeroflot, but for different reasons. Innovations that aren't even thought of as safety features anymore--laminated windshield glass, padded dashboards, and three-point seatbelts--were Volvo firsts. The C30 is essentially a three-door hatchback version of the S40, and shares the sedan's safety features. Dynamic Stability and Traction Control (DSTC) is standard, as are six airbags and Volvo's whiplash protection system.

According to Volvo, the C30 crashes as well as the S40, which means well; the only place it didn't score five stars was in the driver's side front impact, where it scored four. Kids, work hard to sell this little barnstormer on its safety merits to your parental units: A 2.5-liter, turbocharged engine pulls the C30 to 15-second quarter-mile times.

Dodge Charger
Base Price: $24,510

The Dodge Charger shares a platform with the Chrysler 300 and Dodge Magnum, which is in turn based on the Mercedes E-class chassis and thus expectedly good. Mercedes sedans crash consistently well, so it's little surprise that the Charger does too, earning five stars in all categories except for the front seat in side-impacts, where it earns four. Side and curtain airbags are part of the $1235 Protection Group package, which requires the additional purchase of stability control for $1025.

Though traffic laws can perhaps be sometimes followed loosely, the laws of physics are tougher to skirt. While crashing in a small car isn't inherently unsafe, the Charger's generous proportions provide ample sheetmetal to crumple and dissipate energy before it's your body's turn.

Honda Accord
Estimated base price: $19,000

It's no secret we're a fan of this car, which has won more 10Best honors than any other. Of all the family sedans out there, it remains one of the more involving drives, with a nimble character that pays dividends in fluidity and the kind of moves that can help you avoid an accident at speed.

The Accord is all new for 2008 and even the most basic four-cylinder models will come equipped with VSA, or Vehicle Stability Assist with traction control, and our minimum six airbags. Although details on the new model have yet to be released, NHTSA has run a 2008 Accord into a wall already and awarded it five stars for frontal collisions and four for side impacts.

Mazda CX-7 Sport
Base price: $24,345

The CX-7 is the one vehicle on this list to bear the ignominious title of SUV, subset crossover. Don't worry, it doesn't suffer the hideous driving characteristics of an SUV; to the contrary, it's more agile than most vehicles on this list. We had to select the least expensive CX-7, the Sport, to make the $25K cutoff, but it's like selecting a non-vintage bottle of Veuve Clicquot: still good. Getting in or out of trouble is made easier by 244 horsepower, a necessarily healthy number given the CX-7's slightly porcine 3710-pound curb weight. The CX-7 joins the Sonata and Camry in earning perfect scores from NHTSA for frontal and side impacts. And despite being categorized as an SUV, the CX-7 has, according to NHTSA, the same probability of rollover in a single-vehicle crash as the Scion xB.


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