You want a safe vehicle, but it also has to meet your needs. A big car will generally be safer than a smaller one, for instance, but it will also suck down more gas, and it won’t fit into many parking spaces and old garages.
So you should look for the safest car of the type that suits you and your family, be that a small car, luxury sedan, SUV or minivan. Thankfully, we have done the legwork to find the safest cars in every category.
But, first, a bit of explanation.
Safest cars: Defining what's 'safe'
There are two main arbiters of safe: the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which is part of the U.S. Department of Transportation, and the private nonprofit Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.
Each year, the NHTSA tests vehicles that it predicts will have high sales or that have been structurally redesigned. It performs front and side crash tests, plus rollover tests, using crash-test dummies representing average-sized males and small adult females. Based on the results, it applies ratings for each test and an overall score on a five-star system, with five stars being the safest. NHTSA entries also say whether a car has advanced crash-avoidance technologies (rear-view video, and collision and lane-departure warning systems) that meet federal standards and note any safety concerns, such as structural failure, fuel leakage or a door opening during crash tests.
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The IIHS tests vehicles for two different types of front crashes and a side crash. It rates cars based on how well they protect the passenger compartment, “injury” measurements to crash-test dummies and how much the dummies move during a crash. It uses dummies representing an average-size adult man and a small woman or 12-year-old child.
The IIHS also tests roof strength by pushing a metal plate against one side of the roof at a slow, constant speed and measures the peak force applied, relative to the vehicle’s weight, before the roof is crushed 5 inches. The institute evaluates headrests and seats based on headrest fit and a sled test, which mimics a rear impact. And it rates crash-prevention technology, testing automatic emergency braking and forward collision warning systems.
The IIHS awards a “Top Safety Pick” designation to vehicles that earn “good” ratings in the five tests, and a “basic” rating for crash prevention. A car that earns “good” ratings in the five tests, and an “advanced” or “superior” rating for crash prevention is a “Top Safety Pick+.”
Presenting the safest vehicles in every category
To determine the safest car in each category, we looked at vehicles with IIHS “Top Safety Pick+” ratings and “superior” crash avoidance, plus five-star ratings from the NHTSA in 2015 or 2016 and no issues that turned up in NHTSA tests. We didn’t include vehicles that the NHTSA had not rated. These might be as safe as cars we included, but having the NHTSA results provides an extra measure of assurance. If no vehicles in a category met these criteria, we took those that most closely matched the standard and noted the differences.
So, here’s the part you’ve been waiting for — the safest cars in each category.
- Mini car: Mini Cooper, Scion iA (both have “advanced” front crash prevention, not “superior”; neither was rated by the NHTSA).
- Small car: Honda Civic, Subaru Crosstek, Subaru Impreza, Acura ILX.
- Midsize moderately priced car: Honda Accord, Hyundai Sonata, Mazda 6, Subaru Legacy, Subaru Outback, Chrysler 200, Nissan Altima.
- Midsize luxury car: Lexus ES 350, Volvo S60.
- Large family car: Toyota Avalon.
- Large luxury car: Acura RLX, Hyundai Genesis, Infiniti Q70.
- Small SUV: Hyundai Tucson, Subaru Forester, Toyota RAV4, Honda CR-V.
- Midsize SUV: Honda Pilot.
- Large SUV: Audi Q7 (not rated by NHTSA).
- Minivan: Honda Odyssey, Kia Sedona (IIHS rated each as a Top Safety Pick, not Top Safety Pick+, with "basic" front crash avoidance, which is two levels below "superior”).
- Small pickup truck: Toyota Tacoma (no pickup was an IIHS Top Safety Pick. The Tacoma was the highest rated by the IIHS and got four stars from the NHTSA in 2015).
- Large pickup truck: Ford F-150 (Top Safety Pick, not Top Safety Pick+, with "basic" front crash avoidance).
Armed with this list, you should be able to find a safe vehicle that meets your needs. If you want to consider cars that didn't make the cut, check out their ratings on the IIHS and NHTSA websites.