We’re spoilt for choice
If you read any review of the Volvo XC60 crossover SUV, you’ll soon learn that its safety credentials are impeccable. Besides Mazda and Genesis, Volvo is the only other brand that received a Top Safety Pick+ award from the IIHS for every last one of the vehicles in its entire lineup on sale in the USA in 2021. While Volvo and Genesis are premium brands, Mazda is not, and the fact that even the lowly little base model Mazda 3 received the Top Safety Pick+ award goes to show how safety has been democratized, even for cheap cars.
While Volvo’s cheapest car is the XC40 subcompact crossover with a base MSRP of $33,700, similar safety levels can be obtained by buying the base Mazda 3 Sedan for $20,650. Mazda’s performance in crash tests has thrown down the gauntlet to other automakers and demonstrates that Americans don’t have to shell out a lot of money for a premium brand to get access to top-level safety. You can have it for 20 grand, brand-new.
The Safety Criteria
In order for a vehicle to qualify for the IIHS’ Top Safety Pick+ award, the following conditions must be met:
- A “Good” rating for the driver’s side moderate overlap crash test
- A “Good” rating for the driver’s side small overlap crash test
- A “Good” rating for the passenger’s side small overlap crash test
- A “Good” rating for the side-impact crash test
- A “Good” rating for the roof-strength test
- A “Good” rating for the headrest test
- An “Advanced” or “Superior” rating for the available front crash protection features
- An “Acceptable” or “Good” rating for the standard headlights of even the base model
The best crash-test performers tested by the NHTSA get a five-star rating.
The Safest Cars and SUVs In The US
Here are the safest cars in the US in 2021:
- Acura TLX and RDX. An overall five-star rating for the RDX in 2021. The MDX received five stars in 2020, the most recent year it was tested, with no 2021 NHTSA result available yet. However, both SUVs received the 2021 IIHS Top Safety Pick+ award.
- Audi A6, A6 allroad, A7, e-tron, and e-tron Sportback: The A6s stood out for an exceptionally strong roof structure and earned the 2021 IIHS Top Safety Pick+ award. Both received five stars overall from the NHTSA. The A7 and e-tron twins mirrored these results.
- Cadillac XT6: The XT6 received five stars from the NHTSA and a Top Safety Pick+ from the IIHS and shares its new C1xx platform with the GMC Acadia.
- Ford Explorer: Thanks to its stellar crash performance and standard Ford Co-Pilot 360 driver-assistance suite, the ever-popular explorer scored both five stars at the NHTSA and a Top Safety Pick Plus from the IIHS.
- Genesis G70, G80, G90, and GV80: Although the NHTSA has not yet rated the G70 and G90, all other models received five stars. At the IIHS, every single Genesis model scored a Top Safety Pick+ award – a distinction Genesis shares with Mazda and Volvo.
- Honda Accord, Insight, and Odyssey: All three scored the IIHS 2021 Top Safety Pick+ award, as well as five stars overall at the NHTSA.
- Hyundai Nexo and Palisade: The NHTSA hasn’t rated the Nexo fuel-cell EV yet, but it received a top score at the IIHS. The three-row Palisade SUV received a top score from both agencies.
- Kia K5: All models of the Optima successor built after November 2020 with upgraded headlights score a Top Safety Pick+ at the IIHS, partly thanks to its new pedestrian-detection technology. The NHTSA gave it five stars.
- Lexus IS and NX: Major safety improvements in 2017 have meant that the aging IS compact sedan still qualifies for the latest IIHS Top Safety Pick+ award, as does the NX SUV, which also both got full marks at the NHTSA.
- Mazda 3, 6, CX-3, CX-30, CX-5, and CX-9: Like Genesis and Volvo, all Mazdas received top honors from the IIHS. The NHTSA hasn’t tested the Mazda 6 but gave all the other models five stars.
- Mercedes-Benz GLE: Although several driver-assistance features cost extra, the base GLE was good enough for top scores from both crash-test agencies.
- Nissan Altima, Maxima, and Murano: Besides headlights only just making the grade, the three Nissan reaches the podium with Top Safety Pick+ awards and five stars at the respective safety agencies.
- Subaru Legacy, Outback, Ascent, Forester, and Crosstrek: Partly thanks to Subaru’s EyeSight driver-assistance features, all these Subaru’s received maximum results at both safety agencies.
- Tesla Model 3: The Model 3’s semi-autonomous driver-assistance features helped it achieve an IIHS Top Safety Pick+ and five stars at the NHTSA.
- Toyota Camry, Sienna, and Highlander: Thanks to Toyota making advanced driver-assistance technology standard on more of its cars, 2021 sees the automaker with a sedan, minivan, and SUV scoring maximum points at both agencies.
- Volvo S60, V60, S90, V90, XC40, XC60, and XC90: Together with Genesis and Mazda, there isn’t a single Volvo model in the USA that doesn’t tick all the safety boxes.
Some automakers fit inferior headlights to base models, disqualifying the model from receiving a Top Safety Pick+ award. Make sure you check your model on the NHTSA and IIHS websites to see their safety scores. The difference between a top contender in comparison to an also-ran is sometimes as simple as opting for a headlight upgrade.
Safety On A Budget
Realizing that there is a limit to how much some people can pay for a car, Consumer Reports and the IIHS compiled a list of older cars that still offer decent safety levels. These cars earned “Good” or “Acceptable” scores in most IIHS crash tests and have standard stability control. And because weight is an advantage in a crash, this is even more important for older cars to help shore up protection levels, so these cars also all weigh at least 2,750 pounds.
Here are a few great used choices under $15,000 with good safety levels:
- Small cars: Mazda 3 and Toyota Prius, both 2014 or newer.
- Mid-size cars: Subaru Legacy and Outback, both 2013 or newer, as well as the 2014 or newer Mazda 6, 2013 or newer Honda Accord sedan or coupe, 2016 and 2017 VW Passat, 2017 VW Jetta, and 2016 or 2018 Volvo S60.
- Large cars: The 2014 Ford Taurus.
- SUVs: The 2014 or newer Mazda CX-5, the 2014, 2016-2018, and 2020 Nissan Rogue, the 2016 or newer Subaru Forester, the 2015 or newer Honda CR-V, the 2017, 2018, and 2020 Kia Sportage, the 2016 or newer Toyota RAV4, the 2017 and 2019 Chevy Equinox, and the 2015 or newer Nissan Murano.
- Minivans: The 2015 and 2016 Toyota Sienna.
Safety is arguably the most important factor when choosing a car and should get even more attention than cargo space, engine horsepower, fuel economy, luggage configurations, and the number of seats. The good news is that you don’t have to spend a fortune to get a safe car if you buy smartly – even if it’s a used car.