The Safest Cars on the Road
Would you believe the VW Beetle tops the Jeep Cherokee? Our new ranking system
goes beyond the usual
data and finds some surprises. Robert L. Simison reports.
HUNT WILLIAMS learned a hard lesson when an out-of-control sport-utility-vehicle
slammed into his family's SUV on a snowy mountain road two years ago. Although
miraculously no one was injured, he vowed never to skimp on automobile safety.
So when the Salt Lake City real-estate broker went car shopping this summer,
he bought one of the biggest, heaviest passenger vehicles on the road: a $32,000
Chevrolet Tahoe SUV, hailed by the manufacturer for it's "crash avoidance and
occupant protection" capabilities. "Now we feel we can go anywhere and do anything,"
says Mr. Williams. "I want my wife to be driving that car with my kids."
But did he really buy a safe auto? Anyone trying to make a rational safety
choice in the car market faces a big hurdle. In an age when the safety records
of air-lines and hospitals are only a click of a mouse away, it's nearly impossible
to figure out which vehicle is the safest-that is, in which model you and your
family are least likely to be injured or killed in a crash. While there are
reams of statistics on crash tests and death and injury rates, much of what
exists either doesn't allow for comparisons across vehicle categories or doesn't
account for crashes involving moving vehicles of different sizes.
So Weekend Journal set out to digest the disparate pieces of data and produce
a single ranking system for comparing cars, SUVs, vans and pickups. We developed
a formula with the help of government and industry safety experts, engineers
and statisticians across the country. It first combines the results of various
government crash tests to yield an overall crash-test rating. It then modifies
those results to account for vehicle weight, which is widely considered the
best single predictor of performance in a real-life accident. While our system
is only a broad measure, it is a useful framework for assessing relative safety.
We found some surprising results: Big as they are, SUVs fared worse as
a class than we expected. Yes, the mega-SUVS dominated the top ranks. But the
Audi A8, our highest-ranked car, came in several slots ahead of the Ford Explorer
and Toyota 4Runner. And more than a dozen cars-including the two-door Honda
Accord and even the subcompact Volkswagen Beetle-landed ahead of the popular
A few well-known luxury brands that boast safety didn't do a well as one
might expect from their ads. Consider Volvo, nearly synonymous with safety for
many Americans: Its S80 got a high overall score but finished essentially in
a tie with the less-heralded Audi A8, and the Volvo S70 came in more than a
dozen cars behind the Chevrolet Impala. Meanwhile, the compact Mercedes C230
sedan had a fairly low ranking-near the bottom third of the models we evaluated
and behind the more-moderately priced Chevrolet Lumina and Chrysler Concord.
Nor did steeper sticker prices necessarily correlate with higher rankings.
The Nissan Pathfinder SUV, for example, came out more than a half-dozen slots
behind the Honda Odyssey, even though the Odyssey costs $6,000 or so less.
Reassuringly for families with children, several minivans rank near the highest-rated
mega-SUVs. While the top spots are shared by five hulking General Motors SUVs
(including the Tahoe purchased by Mr. Williams of Salt Lake City), the Honda
Odyssey and Ford Windstar minivans follow closely behind. In all, 10 minivans
placed in the top third. Minivans have long been described as sufficiently safe,
but they don't have the aura of tank-like invincibility of the biggest SUVs.
You'll note that some vehicles with strong crash-test ratings didn't perform
well in our ratings. Unlike the staged government tests, in which every vehicle
is crashed into the same fixed barrier, the outcome of real-world accidents
varies wildly depending on speed, the angel of collision and what kind of object
a vehicle hits. We factored in vehicle weight as a rough proxy for those and
other variables that don't always play out in crash tests. For example, extra
weight often indicates that a vehicle has more crush space and a higher bumper,
which may help protect occupants in a crash with another vehicle.
You'll also note that some luxury models, such as the BMW 5-series and the
Cadillac Seville, are missing. That's because, due to budget constraints, the
government doesn't conduct crash tests on some of the most expensive cars.
Finally, no ranking system can account for what experts generally agree
are the most important variables in auto safety: driver behavior and whether
or not the occupants wear seatbelts. Nor is there yet any way to rate the impact
of new high-tech accident-avoidance equipment, such as radar-based braking devices
and advanced xenon lights.
Still, the experts we consulted, including safety officials at major automakers
and with the government. say our approach is a reasonable one. Because our system
is new-and because there were only small differences in the safety scores of
some vehicles-we opted not to award numerical rankings. Instead, we divided
vehicles into ten groups, or deciles, each representing about 10% of the list.
Here are our results. (All weights are in pounds.)
- GMC Suburvan
- Chevy Suburban (tie) 5,759/166.45
- Cadillac Escalade
- GMC Yukon Denali
- Chevy Tahoe (tie) 5,372/155.26
- Lincoln Navigator
- Ford Expedition (tie) 4,890/141.33
- Mercedes-Benz ML320 4,396/137.42
- Nissan Pathfinder
- Infiniti QX4 (tie) 4,4147/134.58
BOTTOM FIVE WEIGHT/SCORE
- Jeep Wrangler 3,322/96.01
- Subaru Forester 3,171/91.65
- Toyota RAV4 2,908/90.98
- Dodge Durango 4,657/89.27
- Jeep Cherokee 3,457/77.33
WITH SO MUCH OF THE TOP decile of our index dominated by SUVs, we were surprised
to see that a handful of SUVs-and not just the smallest models-wound up with
below average overall safety scores. Even the hefty Dodge Durango finished in
the bottom half of our rankings-behind a great many sedans. The reason: It has
a low driver's side head-on crash rating. Our system weights that test most
heavily because statistically the driver is the most exposed occupant in a crash.
Some SUV's with high crash -test scores also did relatively poorly. For
example, the Subaru Forester and Toyota RAV4 came out in the bottom half of
the index, despite their four-star and five-star crash ratings. That's because
they weight only about 3,000 pounds, which is lighter even than some coupes..
Spokesmen for Subaru and Toyota say their vehicles are safe. Indeed, Subaru's
spokesman says the Forester's lightweight may actually provide an advantage
by making it easier to maneuver the vehicle and avoid accidents: "How nimble
is a 7,000-pound truck?"
GM's Suburban, sold in Chevy and GMC versions, got the highest overall
safety score in our index. Although its crash ratings are below those of the
best minivans, the Suburban is far and away the
Heaviest vehicle we ranked-a full three-quarters of a ton more than the Honda
For safety-conscious drivers who don't want something truly enormous, the
Mercedes-Benz ML320-at the top of our second grouping of vehicles-is a popular
choice. Although more than 1,000 pounds lighter than the Suburban, it has a
"best pick" rating from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, based on
independent crash tests. That was enough to tip the scales for Sally Shaffer
of Kansas City, Mo., who scoured the Internet to chart crash-test ratings. After
she and her husband barely survived a horrific front-end collision six years
ago, she says, "I'm not going to buy any car that doesn't have a rating."
DaimierChrysler AG-which makes the Dodge Durango, Jeep Wrangler and Jeep
In our bottom five-days government crash tests give very little indication
of real-world safety. The company adds that our ranking of the Wrangler is inconceivable,
given its four-star crash-test ratings and relatively low injury rates.
There are SUVS on the road that are bigger than the ones we ranked, but
they haven't been crash-tested by the government. Ford's new Excursion, for
example, weights about 7,000 pounds-far more than any vehicle in our list. But
some safety experts argue that the benefits of added weight are diminished substantially
when the vehicle gets to be above 4,000 pounds. Indeed, some of the biggest
SUVs are built on stiff steel rails that may make them more rigid and less capable
of absorbing impact in certain kinds of collisions,
In addition, government and insurance-industry safety authorities worry
that high centers of gravity and narrow wheelbases make small SUVs and pick-ups
prone to rollover accidents. Although the government plans to propose a method
for measuring stability soon, there is currently no way to do so. As a result,
we were unable to factor that issue into our index.
TOP FOUR WEIGHT/SCORE
- Honda Odyssey 4,244/153.31
- Ford Windstar 4,126/149.06
- Ford Econoline 4,760/137.57
- Toyota Sienna 3,973/135.43
BOTTOM TWO WEIGHT/SCORE
- Chevrolet Asto 4,468/107.39
- GMC Safari 4,126/99.17
VANS AS A WHOLE fared very well in our index-even better than SUVs. Ten of
the 12 vans wound up in the top third of all the vehicles are rated, compared
with just over half of the SUVs. This partly reflects their heft; vans tend
to weigh 4,000 pounds or more. But van rankings also benefited from generally
strong performance in federal crash tests. One reason: They are big enough for
designers to build in extra "crush space." Which helps absorb the energy of
a collision and protect occupants.
Vans rated so well, in fact, that even some of the lower-ranked models
had fairly high safety scores. By scores alone, for example the Plymouth Grand
Voyager and Dodge Caravan were among the bottom four vans. But their indexed
safety score was 119,87, comfortably above average and not far below the higher-ranked
Toyota Sienna. As a result, we are listing only tow vans in the bottom ranks:
the Chevrolet Astro and the GMC Safari.
The Astro and Safari came out at the bottom largely because they had mediocre
crash-test scores. They are both older designs, which statistically don't tend
to do as well as new ones in the government
Tests. GM says both models are safe, that it does more crash testing of its
vehicles than the government
And that federal crash tests don't provide an accurate reflection of "real-world"
TOP FIVE WEIGHT/SCORE
- Audi A8 3,751/135.51
- Volvo S80 3,698/133.60
- Ford Crown Victoria
- Mercury Grand Marquis (tie) 3,951/133.32
- Chevrolet Impala 3,454/124.78
- Lincoln Town Car 4,087/118.12
BOTTOM FIVE WEIGHT/SCORE
- Chevrolet Cavalier
- Pontiac Sunfire (tie) 2,750/61.71
- Chevrolet Metro 1,986/57.40
- Hyundai Elantra 2,706/56.78
- Nissan Sentra 2,452/56.01
- Ford Escort 2,458/53.28
WE WERE SURPRISED TO SEE so many sedans hold their own against vans and SUVs.
These include not only the higher-end Audi A8 and Volvo S80 but also less-fashionable
models, such as the Mercury Grand Marquis and the Chevrolet Lumina. Even in
the middle deciles, sedans such as the Honda Accord and Mitsubishi Galant scored
right alongside the Dodge Durango 4X4 and the Nissan Frontier extended-cab pickup.
The reason so many sedans did so well is that they have enough bulk to allow
for lots of crush space, which is an especially critical factor in side-impact
Still some of the safest sedans probably aren't included in our index,
reflecting the federal safety agency's limited crash-testing of expensive luxury
cars. The Cadillac Seville, the Jaguar XJ-series, the Lexus LS400 and the Lincoln
Continental, for example, all weigh more than our highly rated Audi A8. Most
of these luxury brands also tend to come packed with the latest expensive safety
equipment, including side airbags, which help enormously in a side-impact crash
At the bottom of the list are small cars that didn't do that well in crash
tests, don't weigh much and don't have much space to handle side-impact collisions.
Once such car, the Nissan Sentra, is expected to have a new design in February-although
a Nissan spokesman notes that the car already complies with all government safety
standards. A Ford spokesman says the company is trying to improve the crash-test
performance of the Escort-both the sedan and coupe versions-which has a relatively
The Metro ranks low-despite its four-star crash-test scores-because it
is the lightest vehicle in our index. At less than 2,000 pounds, the Metro is
about one-third the size of the biggest SUVs and 400 pounds lighter than the
Hyundai says its Elantra meets or exceeds federal safety standards. It
also argues that our methodology overstates the importance of vehicle weight.
TOP FOUR WEIGHT/SCORE
- Dodge Ram Extended 4,884/141.50
- Dodge Dakota Extended -Cab 3,765/117.79
- Dodge Ram Quad-Cab 3,926/116.04
- Ford F-150 3,926/116.04
BOTTOM FOUR WEIGHT/SCORE
- Nissan Frontier Extended-Cab 3,691/88.71
- Nissan Frontier 2,816/71.04
- GMC Sonoma Extended-Cab
- Chevy S-10 Extended-Cab 3,536/63.65
- Toyota Tacoma Extended-Cab 2,910/63.29
PICKUPS HAVE AN UNUSUAL place in our index: Some rank among the safest vehicles,
others among the least safe. The big Dodge and Ford pickups rank well because
of their size-4,000 to 5,000 pounds- and their solid crash scores. On the other
hand, some of the smaller pickups-the GMC Sonoma, the Chevy S-10 and the Toyota
Tacoma-wound up with rankings lower than those of many cars.
Absent from our ranking are the newly introduced Chevrolet Silverado and the
GMC Sierra, which weigh nearly 4,000 pounds. The federal safety agency conducted
crash test of them this year, but the results were inconclusive and are scheduled
to be redone next month.
The two versions of the Frontier rank in the bottom among pickups despite
three-star and four-star crash-test results. The reason: Their relatively low
weights suggest that they man not hold up in a high-way accident as well as
they do against the fixed barriers used in the crash tests. A Nissan spokesman
says the pickups comply with all government safety rules and meet the company's
own "rigorous" internal safety standards.
Toyota observes that what really hurt the Tacoma's rating was a one-star
performance in the government's side-impact test. "We expected a three-star
result, and we got a one, and we are looking into why," a spokesman said.
TOP FIVE WEIGHT/SCORE
- Pontiac Firebird
- Chevrolet Camaro (tie) 3,336/93.51
- Toyota Camry Solar 3,254/88.54
- Volkswagen Beetle 2,886/88.30
- Honda Accord 3,175/85.29
- Ford Mustang 3,118/82.68
BOTTOM THREE WEIGHT/SCORE
- Honda Civic 2,352/57.57
- Chevrolet Cavalier
- Pontiac Sunfire (tie) 2,708/49.88
- Ford EscortZX2 2,541/45.60
AS A GROUP, coupes tend to be lighter than similar sedans, reducing their relative
crashworthiness. For example, even though it got four-star ratings in the frontal-crash
test, the popular Honda Civic ranks near the bottom, largely because it weighs
only 2,352 pounds. That's 1,500 pounds lighter than a lot of sedans. With only
one star out of five on the government's critical driver-side-impact test, the
coupe versions of the Chevrolet Cavalier and Pontiac Sunfire and the Ford Escort
ZX2 rank even lower.
Honda and Ford both say that their car5s comply with all safety regulations
and that the companies believe them to be safe.
But there were some anomalies among the coupes as well. Based on real-world
accident records, for example, the Chevrolet Camaro has the highest driver death
rate of any vehicle, with fatalities attributed to rollovers that are four times
the national average.
Yet the Camaro an its sister car, the Pontiac Firebird (which also has
a poor accident record), are the highest-rated coupes in our index, with safety
scores just below the overall average. This reflects the cars better-than-average
crash-test scores and their relative heft compared with other coupes. Safety
experts say the Camaro's unusually high death-rate record reflects not so much
the coupe itself by the poor driving habits of its predominantly young, single
and sometimes hard-drinking male drivers.
This paradox underscores one of the difficulties with studying real-world accident
data for clues about the safety of individual vehicles: The records are heavily
tainted by driver behavior. "If they could talk." Says David Harless, an economist
at Virginia Commonwealth University, "these cars might say, 'I'm not bad, I'm
just driven that way.'"
HOW WE COMPILED OUR INDEX
WE STARTED with the basics: the four separate annual crash tests performed
by the government on most new-model vehicles. Using dummies, these tests gauge
the risk of serious injury to occupants in four types of situations: the driver
and front-seat passenger in side-impact collisions. The agency then awards each
vehicle anywhere from one star (indicating high risk) to five stars (indicating
low risk) in each situation.
We combined the four separate crash-test results into a single rating using
a mathematical formula developed by General Motors Corp. This formula factors
in the statistical likelihood of the two types of collisions-head-on and side-impact-and
the relative exposure to harm of each occupant. For example, according to federal
accident data, head-on collisions are twice as common on the road as side-impact
But even the adjusted crash-testing rating doesn't tell you how a vehicle
will do in a real-life crash. The problem is that the government crashes every
vehicle into the same fixed barrier, providing little or no indication of how
it will fare in a collision against a much bigger or much smaller model-or at
different speeds. So to account for industry and government officials' view
that extra weight is what ultimately makes the difference on the road, we multiplied
each vehicle's combined star rating by its weight, measured in thousands of
Finally, we converted the resulting scores into an index that sets the
average safety score of all the vehicles we ranked at 100. This scale makes
it easy to see where a vehicle ranks relative to the average. But it isn't intended
to suggest that a vehicle with an indexed score of, say 150 is twice as safe
as one with 75.
One note: GM has proposed its single-rating formula to the government as
part of an effort to expand the current federal safety ratings to include a
broader set of criteria. Because GM believes that comprehensive safety rankings
should encompass many variables that can't currently be measured, it hasn't
endorsed our approach. While GM SUVs garnered several of the top slots in our
index, they landed there primarily because of their weight- and not because
of GM's formula.
To view the complete list of car data, click