You probably want to check out my more recent list of safest vehicles with a brief discussion about each.

General Requirements

Here are the things I had in mind when I started looking around at what vehicles were out there. You might have different priorities than me. If so, you might want to check out my collection of new car research and buying links, which includes all the sites I looked at in making these web pages. It's not just a list, but is organized into a rough sequence of research stages.

In general, I value safety and reliability, but I don't want to pay for a lot of luxury if I can avoid it. I actually enjoy driving, so I'd like a car that is fun to drive. This means primarily that it has good handling and braking (both also good from a safety perspective), in both good and bad road/weather conditions. It must also be a manual transmission, which makes it more fun to drive but also is an aesthetically simpler design, leads to better gas mileage, and gives more direct control over the vehicle for unusual circumstances in which that might be needed.

I favor price savings over bigger engines so long as the engine is not severely underpowered. (This can create a safety issue, but is usually only a problem in entry level vehicles, especially those from Japan. It's seldom a problem with vehicles from Europe. Also, a manual transmission usually goes a long way to mitigating this problem.) Excessively powerful engines are not particularly safer than reasonably sized engines. I don't need to do 0-60 in 6-7sec. And I'd rather not pay for the decreased gas mileage, not to mention increase the pollution for no good reason. If I drove regularly on the Autobahn, maybe this would be different.

Of course, I also only considered vehicles that do not have ugly styling, but this is largely a subjective matter, so I won't dwell on it. All of the cars that ended up making the short list look good in my opinion, but I may have eliminated from consideration a vehicle that looks really bad without remembering to make this explicit.

I value utility and cargo space, but as a single guy in my early thirties I did not consider minivans (which would not have made the list anyway since they all seem to come only with automatic transmissions) or station wagons. Partially, station wagons were out for aesthetic reasons anyway. Almost every station wagon on the market, in my opinion, looks significant worse than the corresponding sedan.

Ability to do minor off-roading (go over curbs, negotiatie very bumpy dirt roads, etc.) would be a plus, but isn't as important as the above.

Lastly, I only considered 2001-model-year vehicles since these have only been around for a little while and should continue to be available for another year. I do not plan to make the purchase right away, but 2000-model-year cars will be gone soon.

Specific Requirements

All this translates into the following specific requirements I used to generate a short list of contenders:

Update (Aug, 2001): But the links page mentioned above needs to be updated to reflect new links added in the past 8 months. My desired features/specs have changed a bit in this time as well. Mostly, there are some extra safety features, like stability control, that I now realize are really important and would be good to have. The changes are:

The Short List

Most people in the USA these days seem to prefer automatic transmissions, and many new vehicle models either only come with an automatic or only come with an automatic if you want the all-wheel-drive (full-time 4WD) version. With American and Japanese cars, the manual transmission appears to be seen as an entry-level-trim cost-saving transmission rather than something desirable, and often you can't get it with the higher trim levels. This is a shame, and narrowed my choices of what vehicles to consider dramatically. In Europe, manual transmissions are much more common, so it is the European cars that tend to come with manual transmissions available regardless of trim level or AWD status. The European cars also tend to be better about including the latest safety features, like side airbags, as standard without making you buy more expensive luxury features along with them.

In my opinion, the two vehicles I've chosen are the safest vehicles you can buy today for around $20,000 or around $40,000 that have a manual transmission. But even if you consider an automatic transmission acceptable, these vehicles are certainly still amongst the best (safest and fun-to-drive) choices available.

The short list is, in alphabetical order, with specific trim level listed (and with my preferred option package in parens, though this will vary more from person to person):

Update: I may consider xenon headlights now, as reports indicate they really can be safer when there isn't enough road lighting from other sources. I'll have to consider this further. There are a few other options for the X5 that I may consider also.

Narrowly missing being on the short list were the Nissan Maxima and Pathfinder. The problem with the Maxima is that to get its side air bags, which supposedly also protect the head, you have to buy the leather, heated seats and this drives the price up to the $26-27k range of the Audi A4 (but the A4 also gives you AWD and traction control which are not available with the Maxima--well traction is, but only with the automatic) or the Saab 9-3 (which gives you a hatchback for better cargo/utility, traction control, and more safety features such as On-Star), and almost within the price range of the BMW 325xi (AWD, traction control, stability control). The Maxima can only be had with traction control if you get the automatic transmission. The Maxima SE is a great looking, reliable, fun-to-drive sports sedan. If Nissan would only offer the side air bags and traction control at the low end price range, it would be an interesting choice. But note that the crash test ratings from IIHS are still not as good as the results from my top choices, so the Maxima wouldn't have been the winner.

The problems with the Pathfinder are that it received bad crash test results from IIHS (overall: marginal, or 2 out of 4), and that the full-time 4WD is only available with the automatic transmissions, and that it has rear drum brakes. Too bad because it's one of the better looking SUVs today, IMHO.

The AWD Subaru family also misses the list because they are not available with side head airbag protection.

Update: Also see the note below about the new Audi allroad quattro.

The Winners

If you order the vehicles on the short list by price you get:
vehicle estimated price ($)
Jetta GL 16,300 - 16,500
Passat GLS sedan 20,800 - 21,300
Saab 9-3 5-door 26,400 - 26,700
Audi A4 1.8T 26,800 - 27,100
Volvo S60 sedan 27,000 - 27,200
BMW 325xi sedan 29,400 - 29,800
BMW X5 3.0i 39,700 - 41,100
Prices come from Amazon.com/Greenlight.com and CarsDirect.com's no-haggle up front prices, which better represent what you would really pay than invoice or MSRP since they reflect current demand and special incentives to a greater extent. (For example, right now, the X5 is very popular, so its Amazon and CarsDirect prices are much closer to MSRP than the the prices are for the Passat or the Saab 9-3.) Also, these roughly match what people are saying is message boards that they are paying for X5s and Passats. Good hagglers might be able to do slightly better than these prices though.

The Passat and X5 represent the safest, fun-to-drive vehicles you can get in their respective price ranges (around $20k and around $40k). The Passat is hard to beat in terms of what you get for the money. If you don't need four-wheel drive, it's probably the best sedan you can get for the money. The X5 is probably the overall safest vehicle you can buy right now (with a manual transmission, and possibly overall). It sets new standards of safety and handling performance for utility vehicles. It has all the positive safety aspects of an SUV (better visibility and weight), without the negatives to such extremes (it handles better than any other SUV ever made and better than many sedans, and it is wide and very stable, and thus much less likely to roll). This is why BMW marketing insists that the X5 is not an SUV (and calls it a Sports *Activity* Vehicle).

If you need four-wheel drive, or your price point is $30k but you can't go up to the $40k required for the X5, the choice between the A4, 9-3, and 325xi is a tough one. I wouldn't consider the S60 at the moment. The biggest thing it has going for it is Volvo's safety reputation, but it's crash test results are not in yet. With each of the A4, 9-3, and 325xi, you get a little something extra you don't get with the others (or the Volvo). The 9-3 has the hatchback and On-Star. The A4 and 325xi have excellent AWD, and if you are willing to pay a little more but get a little less cargo space, the 325xi also has sophisticated electronic braking assist and stability control systems.

If you can't possibly go up to the Passat price range, the Jetta gives impressive safety features for a car in it's price range, and has very reasonable crash test results (not quite as good as the Passat), in a package that looks very much like a Passat, and has similar internal controls, but costs $3-4k less. The problem with the Jetta is that it has very different drivetrain components from the Passat. The Jetta is based on a traditionally VW platform that is also used for the Golf, and the New Beetle. The Passat is based on a traditionally Audi (VW owns Audi) platform that is also the basis for the A4, and the A6. According to Consumer Reports, the Jettas have been having significantly more problems with reliability, and Consumer Reports is no longer recommending them for that reason. By contrast, CR recommends the Passat, as does the IIHS for its crashworthiness. Also, the base Jetta does not have traction control. You can go up in trim level on the Jetta and start to get some of the Passat's standard features, but the price difference quickly shrinks too. The loaded Jettas cost more than the base Passats, but choosing a loaded Jetta over a base Passat is a very poor decision from a safety and reliability perspective.

Update: Audi allroad quattro

The 2001 Audi allroad quattro probably should have been on this list too. It is perhaps the closest competitor to the X5, competing in the same niche of a hybrid between an SUV and a sports sedan. I initially discounted it partially because it seemed to be just an A6 wagon raised up. It turns out that that it has many of the same advantages as the X5. The most important things the X5 gives you over the Passat is increased height (visibility) and weight, all-wheel drive, and some small off-road ability. The allroad quattro (name meant to be in lower case evidently) has the same advantages while being a distant somewhat cousin of the Passat. It is about the only vehicle besides the X5 that can vaguely claim to be SUV-like but with much better on-road handling. Plus, it's available in a manual transmission and costs about the same as the base X5 (a little more at the moment in my area due to short supply I expect). It has curtain-style side head air bags like the other Audis. Plus, the allroad quattro has some interesting unique features. The most important is a height adjusting suspension, going from between 5 and 6 inches of ground clearance up to over 8 inches (higher for off-roading at low speeds, lower for on-road at higher speeds). I think this is great and have been complaining to my roommate that I really want this feature in a vehicle since before I knew about the allroad quattro. It also has available the A6's solar powered cooling fans as part of the warm weather package, which I think is a really neat feature.

Unfortunately, it still has the body of a station wagon rather than an SUV, which I don't really like. The main reason for not amending my list and adding it in now, however, is that it hasn't really been crash tested by either big crash test program. It is based on same platform as the A6, but he A6 also doesn't seem to have been crash tested by NHTSA, and the A6's results from offset crash tests by IIHS give only an acceptable (3 out of 4) rating (the worst in the small group of vehicles labeled "midsize luxury cars" by IIHS). I don't know why it gets worse results than the Passat. If I were starting from the beginning again, this vehicle would probably be on the list though. If good crash test results do come out, I'll have to reconsider it. Hopefully, height adjustable suspensions will become more widely adopted. An X5 with height adjustable suspension would be spectacular! (Update, summer 2001: The 2002 X5 does have height adjustable suspension, and it is available with the manual transmission, but it doesn't seem to work quite like the Audi system. It can lower the X5 for convenient entry/exit at low speeds but raised to the normal height for faster driving. It can go above the normal height for off-roading by a couple inches. I don't understand why they didn't make it progressively lower for faster driving as the Auid system does, for better handling and lower rollover risk.)


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Karl Pfleger
kpfleger@cs.stanford.edu
December, 2000