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Japaneseusedcars.co.nz - Automotive news.

The safest cars to drive

When it comes to buying a car, speed and style aren't the first consideration for many of today's consumers. Safety is.

The good news is that today's cars are far safer than those manufactured even five years ago. Advances in crash and accident avoidance technology mean that consumers who buy a new car equipped with the latest safety features stand far less chance of being killed or seriously injured in a car crash than those who drive older cars.

"Ten years ago when we started our front crash tests, it was rare for a vehicle to earn a good rating," says Russ Rader, a spokesperson for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, an independent nonprofit organization. "In some cases, the vehicle would simply collapse in the crash and we'd have to cut the dummy out from the front seat. But now we've only had one vehicle in the last three years that earned a poor rating in the frontal crash testing -- that is a rare exception."

Technological advances such as second-generation airbags, electronic stability control, brake assist, tire pressure monitors and smart headlights continue to revolutionize car safety. While many of these features aren't standard on many cars, most are available in a wide range of models.

Overview of features
Here's a rundown of the latest safety features:

Adaptive front airbags. While front airbags are standard in all cars, some were causing injuries when deployed. The new adaptive systems can sense whether a passenger has fastened his or her seat belt and how severe the crash is likely to be so that the airbags inflate appropriately.

Side airbags. Front airbags were a huge safety advance, but they don't protect passengers in all types of crash situations. Side airbags for passengers in front and rear seats protect passengers' torsos in a crash.

Side curtain airbags. Head injuries are the worst kind of crash injury. Side curtain airbags, which deploy downwards from an area above the windows, are not only designed to protect passengers from head injuries, but also can keep passengers from being ejected from a car when it rolls over.

Knee airbags. Designed for the driver and front-row passenger, these airbags deploy at knee level to protect your legs in a front-end collision.

Electronic stability control. This feature helps drivers avoid accidents -- especially SUV rollovers -- by keeping a vehicle from sliding or skidding out of control. Sensors in a vehicle can tell how fast a car is going, where it is being steered and if it is spinning, and will apply brakes and, in some models, reduce the power of the engine to keep the car on its intended path. Electronic stability control is known by different names from different car manufacturers, so if you're interested in the feature ask your salesperson what it's called.

Brake assist. An add-on technology to the anti-lock brake systems standard in most cars today, brake assist senses how forcefully or fast the driver is pressing the brake pedal, and will make sure that anti-lock brakes are deploying, which can aid drivers in avoiding accidents.

Tire pressure monitors. With all the publicity about tire blowouts a few years ago, most drivers are aware of the danger that under-inflated tires pose. While the government is considering mandating that all new vehicles have such a monitor, it probably won't happen for a couple of years. So some manufacturers are incorporating this system into cars now.

"Smart" headlights. These new headlights, made from intensely bright xenon bulbs, incorporate sensors that control headlights so the driver can see the road better. Currently, these are only available as options on very high-end cars, including some BMW, Mercedes, Lexus, Acura, Audi and Porsche models.

Crash alert systems. Several car manufacturers, including GM and Lexus, include this feature in safety and security car systems such as OnStar, which notifies police and fire departments if you are in an accident.

Built-in car seats. Studies show that many parents install child car safety seats incorrectly, which can lead to severe injury or death in a crash. Some car makers are including built-in car seats in models designed for families, such as mini-vans.

Most desirable features
It's easy to want every single safety feature you can get, at least until you see how much they cost. Many luxury car makers include most of these features in their models, especially their high-end models, but those models can run US$40,000 and up for a new car.

And some of the newest features, such as knee airbags, aren't yet standard in virtually any make or model. Costs vary widely: Smart headlights, for example, can cost you between US$800 and US$1,200 on the models where they are available, while electronic stability control runs anywhere from US$600 to US$800.

If you have to choose between safety features, Mark Bilek, automotive editor at Consumer Guide Automotive, recommends side curtain airbags, which cost between US$300 and US$800 as an add-on, or may be bundled with other features.

"I believe that side curtain airbags are the most important safety feature you can add to your car purchase," he says. "While side collisions aren't as prevalent as front-end collisions, you don't have the cushion of the front-end in such a crash, so your head is more likely to hit the window or the pillar more quickly, causing a severe head injury."

Since new cars are so expensive, it's tempting to drive your old clunker into the ground. But many consumers who do this are being penny wise and pound foolish says Brian Moody, road test editor at Edmunds.com.

"If you have a car that is six or eight years old, you have to realize that the technology has really advanced and that newer cars are much safer. Car makers are doing a lot, for example, with improving the front end of cars, which is known as the crumple zone, so that the car absorbs more of the impact in a crash. You won't find that in an older car."

Consumer Guide Automotive's Bilek notes that there are steps you can take beyond buying a new car with expensive safety features to improve your chances of avoiding an accident. He recommends snow tires, or at a minimum, all-season tires, to consumers living in snow-belt states. "Getting snow tires or better, all-weather tires, is one of the cheapest things you can do to improve your traction control in slippery or snowy weather, even more than features such as all-wheel drive," he says.

Besides snow tires, he says that winter wiper blades help keep the windshield clear in icy and snowy weather, as do newer window washer fluids that have de-icing capabilities. But the best safety feature is one that too many consumers don't use -- seat belts. If you don't use your seat belt, all the other safety features in your car won't work as well because you lack that vital primary restraint.

Safest cars by model
Consumer Reports rates cars for reliability, and also provides a separate rating for safety that is included in the overall reliability score. "We're the only ones that do a safety rating that combines crash protection and accident avoidance into one score," says Gabe Shenhar, senior auto test engineer and special publications program manager for Consumers Union.

In terms of crash protection, Consumer Reports relies on tests conducted by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, which both conduct independent crash tests and make their data available to consumers. NHTSA bases its ratings on full-frontal and side-impact collisions. IIHS conducts offset-front crashes, a common type of front-end collision, and in 2003 started conducting side-impact collision testing.

Consumer Reports currently uses all the NHTSA results and the IIHS offset-front crash tests and may begin to include the IIHS side-impact collision testing once more results become available, Shenhar says. Consumer Reports weighs results based on how important its experts consider each variable.

As far as accident avoidance goes, auto testing staff members put a car through various road maneuvers designed to test a car's braking, acceleration, emergency handling, visibility, driving position and seat comfort. A car's performance in emergency handling and braking contribute most heavily to the accident avoidance rating, according to Consumers Union.

The magazine published results for 101 new and redesigned 2005 models in October. More results will be available in the April 2005 issue. Consumer Reports breaks down its ratings into the following categories:

Small cars
Five best: Honda Civic EX, Volkswagen Jetta GLS TDI, Ford Focus ZX4, Mini Cooper and Volkswagen New Beetle Turbo 5.
Two worst: Hyundai Elantra GLS and Chevrolet Cavalier LS.

Family sedans
Five best: Mazda 6s and I, Volkswagen Passant GLX, Nissan Maxima 3.5 SE, Honda Accord EX and Volkswagen Passant GLS TDI.
Two worst: Kia Optima EX and Ford Taurus SES/Mercury Sable LS.

Upscale and luxury sedans
Five best: Lexus IS300, Mercedes-Benz E-Class E320, Acura TL and TSX, Volvo S80 T6 and Mercedes-Benz C-Class C320.
Two worst: Cadillac CTS and Volvo S60 2.5T.

Large sedans
Four best: Ford Crown Victoria LX/Mercury Grand Marquis LSE, Toyota Avalon XLS, Lincoln Town Car Signature and Buick Park Avenue Ultra.
Two worst: Pontiac Bonneville SE and Buick LeSabre Limited.

Four best: Ford Freestar SEL/Mercury Monterey, Nissan Quest 3.5 SL, Toyota Sienna LE and Mazda MPV ES.
Two worst: Kia Sedona EX and Chrysler Town & Country SXT/Dodge Grand Caravan SXT.

Small SUVs
Four best: Subaru Forester 2.5x, Honda Element EX, Honda CR-V EX and Saturn Vue.
Three worst: Kia Sorento LX, Jeep Liberty Sport and Pontiac Aztek.

Mid-sized SUVs
Six best: Infiniti FX35, Lexus RX330, Chrysler Pacifica, Toyota Highlander Limited, Cadillac SRX and Nissan Murano 3.5 SE.
Three worst: Ford Explorer XLT 4WD, Buick Rendezvous CL and Chevrolet TrailBlazer SLT/GMC Envoy SLE.

Full-sized crew cab pickups
Three best: Ford F-150 XLT, Toyota Tundra SR5 and Dodge Ram 150SLT (5.7 and 4.7).
Worst: Chevrolet Silverado 1500 Z71/GMC Sierra 1500.




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