Crash test ratings: the safest cars you can buy

There are a lot of elements that go into a car purchase. It has to fit into your budget, and to meet your needs as far as cargo and passenger space, performance, and fuel economy. Ideally, it should match your aesthetic—most of us have reasonably strong preferences about the style of a car, and its color.

Another factor to consider—and tends to be top of mind for people who will be driving their children—is safety. The size of a car, and the style, don’t necessarily have a lot of bearing on safety. Bigger doesn’t always mean safer. Even minivans, long thought of as the quintessential the ‘family car’ and considered inherently safe, haven’t always been so.

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) are the two primary safety ratings organizations. The NHTSA is a government agency, while the IIHS is a nonprofit entity funded by insurance companies.

Both organizations conduct crash tests, and they rate cars’ safety based on how well it holds up to each test and how well it protects (simulated, crash-test dummy) occupants from injury. They both also test crash avoidance—everything from how effectively a car brakes to driver-assistance systems like lane departure warnings and automatic braking.

The NHTSA scores cars using a star rating scale, with 5 being the highest rating, and the IIHS uses four levels of rating: poor, marginal, acceptable, and good. (Yes, ‘good’ sounds unenthusiastic, but in fact that’s the top rating.) IIHS then designates the cars that get the highest ratings in the most categories as Top Safety Pick and Top Safety Pick+.

Based on the testing of NHTSA and IIHS, here are some of the safest cars you can buy on the used market today:

2016- 2020 Kia Optima

Kia has been racking up some exceptional safety ratings with the Optima, as well as the Soul. The Optima gets a perfect 5 out of 5 rating from the NHTSA, and the Top Safety Pick+ rating from IIHS.

The Kia Optima maintains an intact passenger compartment in a frontal crash test.

2018-2020 Subaru Outback

The Subaru Outback is one of the safest 4-door wagons on the market today. NHTSA rates it 5 out of 5, and IIHS named it a Top Safety Pick.

Subaru crash test results are typically strong across their lineup. Here’s the
Legacy, the sedan version of the Outback wagon.

2017-2020 Tesla Model 3

In the category of all-electric cars, Tesla’s entry level Model 3 is a safety standout. With a 5-star NHTSA rating and the Top Safety Pick+, the only (moderate) risk of injury was to the driver’s lower leg/foot.

The Model 3’s passenger compartment allows only minimal intrusion in a frontal crash.

In addition to the standard crash testing, pickups, SUVs, and minivans undergo an additional test: dynamic tip-up testing. Because the weight distribution of these types of vehicles are typically more prone to rollover, the NHTSA has a ‘fishhook’ maneuver—A quick left-right-left swerve—to assess stability. The test is conducted, in increasing speed increments, from 35 to 50 miles per hour. If at any point two wheels come off the ground, the vehicle fails. Otherwise (even if it slides), it passes.

2015-2021 Ford F-150 Crew Cab

In the pickup category, the F-150 Crew Cab is one of the safest trucks you can buy. It holds up well to collision tests from all sides, and never lifted two wheels off the ground in the fishhook.

Ford F-150 in the NHTSA crash testing center.

2018-2020 Volkswagen Tiguan

The Volkswagen Tiguan is one of the safest SUVs on the road, achieving exceptional ratings for driver and passenger safety in frontal, rear, and side collisions. And as an SUV, it’s also of course subject to dynamic tip testing, and showed that it’s stable even during fast turns and swerves.

This IIHS test reveals that the Tiguan preserved the driver’s ‘survival space’ extremely well.

Crash test results and safety ratings for most cars can be found on the IIHS and NHTSA websites.

An interesting caveat… not all cars are crash tested

Car manufacturers don’t actually give the NHTSA and the IIHS cars to drive into walls. The testing agencies have to purchase them. So there are actually a number of higher-priced cars that aren’t tested. That’s because the higher-priced cars typically have much smaller production volume; so the safety impact is smaller, and it makes more sense to spend the money testing less expensive cars that are sold in much higher numbers. Carmakers whose vehicles aren’t tested at all are Land Rover, Porsche, and Jaguar. Other manufacturers have specific models that haven’t been tested due to high cost/low production, like the Chevrolet Corvette, Mercedes GLS, and and BMW 4-series.

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