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Safety drives auto sales and insurance rates

You're wandering through the maze of a car dealership parking lot when all of a sudden it hits you: The car you've hunted for months is sitting right in front of you. It's the right color and has all the extras. It's perfect.

You take it for a test spin. You love it and you've got to have it.

But have you stopped to consider its safety rating?

Is it really the best car for you or is it just a cleverly disguised death trap?

Let's face it, many drivers think safe means boring. But it's not boring to insurance companies, which base their rates, in part, on the safety of the cars and their occupants.

Kim Hazelbaker, senior vice-president of the Highway Loss Data Institute, says insurance companies factor accident records of vehicles when setting premiums. However, crash-test results are useful to the insurance industry if there's not a lot of real-life accident data on the newer models of vehicles. Vehicles that do well in crash tests generally perform well in the real world, he says.

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Newer vehicles generally cost more to insure than older ones. But consumers can get discounts on the newer models if the vehicles have the latest safety features.

What's more, manufacturers increasingly are aware that safety can boost their bottom lines.

"Safety sells," says David Champion, director of automobile testing at Consumer Reports magazine. "More and more companies are using good crash-test results as an advertising ploy to get a leg up on the competition."

And David Zuby, vice president of the vehicle research center at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety agrees, "Most manufacturers realize consumers want crash protection."

Safety by design
There are two major factors at play: prevention, or how well the vehicle is designed to prevent an accident, and crashworthiness, how well the vehicle performs in a crash.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, a government agency, performs full-frontal crashes and side-impact collisions and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, which is sponsored by the insurance industry, tests vehicles in an offset-frontal crash, a more common type.

Consumer Reports magazine uses the test results of these two agencies to compare 85 vehicles in terms of accident avoidance, crash protection and overall safety. Higher overall scores go to the models that have done well in accident avoidance and crash protection and can improve your chance of avoiding or surviving a crash.

As for avoiding accidents in the first place, the magazine looks at braking performance on both dry and wet pavement, the effectiveness of the anti-lock braking system, emergency handling, acceleration, driving position, visibility and even seat comfort. A vehicle that accelerates quickly makes it easier to merge safely into traffic. Driving position can affect comfort and your ability to see the road clearly and visibility increases your awareness of road conditions and other vehicles. Seat comfort plays a role, also. A driver who is tired or uncomfortable may concentrate less on the road.

Consumer Reports publishes its results in five categories:

Upscale and large sedans -- The Lexus LS300, the Audi A4 and the BMW 330i topped the charts. The Buick LeSabre Limited and Chrysler 300M came in at the bottom of 14 vehicles tested in this category.

Family sedans -- The Volkswagen Passat GLX (V6) came in at No. 1, with the Toyota Camry XLE (V6) close behind. The four-cylinder Passat GLS, the Nissan Altima 3.5 SE and the Subaru Legacy also did well in this category. Safety dogs were the Pontiac Grand Prix GT, the Oldsmobile Alero and the Pontiac Grand Am.

Small cars -- Volkswagen also took top honors in the battle of the bantamweights. The VW Golf TDI came in at No. 1. Close behind was the Honda Civic EX and the Volkswagen Jetta GLS TDI. Trailing in this category were the Hyundai Elantra GLS and the Chevrolet Cavalier LS.

Pickup trucks -- In the full-sized pickup category, pole position went to the Toyota Tundra SRS 4.7, the Dodge Ram SLT 4.7 and the Ford F.150 XLT 5.4. Taking the top honors in the compact crew-cab pickups were the Toyota Tacoma TRD (V6) and the Nissan Frontier (V6). Rated as poor were the Dodge Dakota SLT, the Chevrolet S-10 L5 (V6) and the GMC Sonoma 5LS (V6). "Pickups generally don't do well in these assessments," says Champion. "They usually don't protect the driver in crashes and some of them have poor brakes and sloppy handling."

Sport utility vehicles and minivans -- In the small-sized SUV category the top vehicles for safety were the Saturn VUE (V6), the Honda CR-V EX and the Hyundai Santa Fe GLS (V6). In the mid-sized category, the winners were the Lexus RX300, the Acura MDX and the Toyota Highlander. SUVs that did poorly were the Chevrolet Trail Blazer, the GMC Envoy and the Jeep Grand Cherokee. As for minivans, the Honda Odyssey EX, the Toyota Sienna LE and the Mazda MPV LX all did well. But the Chevrolet Venture LS, the Oldsmobile Silhouette GLS and Pontiac Montana fared poorly.

Zuby says that the Pontiac Montana, a minivan, probably was the worst vehicle the institute has tested that's still being sold. "The crush zone didn't crush as much as it should have done, meaning there's a high likelihood of a serious injury in an accident."

For full crash-test results from NHTSA click here and from IIHS click here.

Daniel Pund, associate editor for Car and Driver magazine, says there's no such thing as a totally safe car. "Because of legislation and because of government testing, they're all pretty close," Pund says. "For example, they're all now required to have air bags. Vehicles are safer today than they were 15 or 20 years ago. There's no question that cars are better designed these days to handle crashes."

Tires also are much better today than they were 30 years ago, which means better handling, he says. Seat belts are also better designed so that the belt itself does not injure an occupant and still protects you from hitting the windshield.

In the end, no matter how safe the vehicle is, the way it's driven can have a lot to do with whether you'll suffer a serious injury.

"The safest car in the world is one that never leaves the garage," says Champion. "How safe a vehicle is depends a lot on the way it's driven."

For more on automobile safety issues click here.

Prakash Gandhi is a freelance writer based in Florida.

-- Posted: Dec. 9, 2003

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