Crash test ratings are one of the clearest indications of safety, but they aren’t the only factor you should be looking for when shopping for a new or used car. Of course, it’s critical that the vehicle you choose can withstand significant impact, but safety features that are designed to avoid collisions are also important to keep you and your passengers safe inside. But equally important when evaluating a used car is looking at how it was maintained, the condition of the mechanical components, and its structural integrity. Here’s what you need to know to buy or lease a safe new or used car.
Understanding Safety Ratings
Many organizations publish vehicle safety ratings, but the two most reliable are the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS). Both organizations crash test vehicles in a variety of scenarios and score them based on how well occupants were protected in each test. IIHS ratings also take into account the performance of safety features such as headlights, seats and head restraints, and crash avoidance and mitigation systems.
“Each of these safety organizations rates and reviews vehicles using their own methodology,” says David Bennett, manager of repair systems at AAA. If you are buying a car from a dealership, the NHTSA safety rating is printed on the window sticker with the price and other stats, but you’ll need to go to the NHTSA website to get a better understanding of the rating. It’s also a good idea to look up the model’s report on IIHS for more information.
“To me, the most important category is any one where the car you’re looking at differs from others in the pack,” says Keith Barry, auto reporter and editor at Consumer Reports. When considering which vehicle to purchase and looking at safety ratings, compare the car that you are interested in to other vehicles of the same year in its category.
“The IIHS makes updates to their tests more frequently, and you’ll see that cars sometimes struggle to pass a new test,” says Barry. “That’s a good thing, because it keeps automakers on their toes if they keep having to meet stricter and stricter standards.”
For example, IIHS recently introduced new testing for side crashes for all vehicles. Many SUVs had performed well on prior iterations of testing, but scored lower under the new specifications. Therefore, it’s important to consider these results in context as manufacturers make structural adjustments to new vehicles that will hit the market soon. If you buy an SUV now, it may have a lower safety rating than a similar model coming out in the future.