For roughly $20,000: The 2001 Volkswagen Passat GLS (no options necessary, important safety features come standard)
For roughly $40,000: The 2001 BMW X5 3.0i
For a few hundred to a few thousand more, there are a number of safety related options to consider for the X5, but all of the most important safety features like air bags (even for the side and head), anti-lock brakes, AWD, traction control, stability control, etc. are all standard (see below), so even the base model is amazingly safe.
These two vehicles are, in my opinion, the safest manual-transmission vehicles you can buy today in these approximate price categories, and it would seem that the X5 is the safest all-around vehicle you can buy today in either a manual or automatic. Plus, it does not seem like more money can get you any more safety than the X5. (I wish I had the money to buy an X5 right now.) If you want an automatic, there are more competitors to choose from, but these two vehicles can both be had as automatics (with manual shifting modes even) and are still amongst the safest vehicles in this larger field of competitors. Note that the automatic option will cost you another thousand or so.
The Passat has been Consumer Reports top pick in a couple categories for quite some time, and gets excellent reviews throughout the industry. Nonetheless, I would greatly prefer an X5 despite how good the Passat is. The rest of this page concentrates on the X5, and explains why it is such an incredibly safe, and yet still fun-to-drive vehicle.
My requirements and biases may be different from yours. You can check out in more detail my requirements and a brief discussion of the other vehicles I considered. One of my top requirements is safety. If you don't think crash test results and safety features like side torso and head airbags are important, read on.
Update: The X5 is not perfect. Read my FAQ of X5 reliability problems. Also check out my list of promising vehicles and my issues with each for what I don't like about X5 features, specs, and ratings.
I've never owned a sedan, as my current and previous cars are 2-door hatchback coupes with lots of cargo space for their size ('86 Celica and '89 Probe, with the two largest cargo spaces of any 2-door coupes). Years ago I wanted an SUV, primarily because I was tired of the lack of visibility in my low-to-the-ground sports coupes, but wanted to keep the utility of being able to load large objects like bicycles, file cabinets, dressers, etc. into the back. Even though sedans are generally bigger than my sports coupes, loading large objects like this can't be done as easily with sedan style trunks, even if the rear seat folds down. I gave up the idea of an SUV for safety reasons when enough sources had pointed out the poorer handling of SUVs and I noticed a remarkable lack of safety features compared with similar sedans. (I can't bring myself to buy a station wagon at this point in life, but if you don't mind a wagon, the Passat GLS wagon has excellent cargo area and all the same safety of the sedan for only a thousand more or so. In the $40k category, the X5 is still safer than any wagon, IMHO, if for no other reason than its better visibility while maintaining better handling than many sedans and wagons.)
In particular, Consumer Reports and sites like The Ultimate Poseur's Sport Utility Page put me on guard against popular SUVs like the Explorer and 4Runner. Poorer handling, poorer braking, and more primitive four-wheel-drive systems than many sedan AWD systems (and specifically the lack of ability to get AWD with a manual transmission in most reasonably priced SUVs) had me down on the idea of an SUV. Plus, even the SUVs that were "reasonably priced" relative to extremes like the over $60k Range Rover were more expensive by $10k or so than similarly equipped cars.
I had seen the X5 before of course, but I really started to take notice of it when in short succession I noted two things: (a) the IIHS offset crash test results (see below), in which the X5 was found to be not only the best SUV they had ever tested, but the safest vehicle of any kind, and (b) that BMW had introduced a new 6-cylinder version for only $35k dealer invoice, over $10k cheaper than the previous base version, and not that unreasonably more than loaded 4Runners, Grand Cherokees, or the like.
Upon a more thorough investigation, it became clear that BMW has done a spectacular job with the X5, and has raised the bar on SUV safety and driveability. The X5 eliminates for example most objections to SUVs raised by the Poseur SUV site (see below), and every review and head-to-head comparison has judged it to be the best handling, braking, and all around on-road driving SUV on the market.
In fact, the X5 is so safe that going up to $60k doesn't really get you the ability to buy a significantly safer vehicle. BMW has even stated that the X5 is safer than their 7-series sedans. You just get more luxury and bigger engines as you spend more money over this price point. You can't get better on-road driving characteristics in an SUV form-factor even if you spend more money. (Update: It's unclear to me how much better the driving characteristics of the 3.0 X5 get if you spend the $2k for the sport package. I'd love to see slalom and skidpad numbers for the 3.0 with vs. without the sport package. Reports by normal people seem to indicate that the difference in handling isn't very significant.)
Note that I'm not the only one who thinks the X5 is the safest vehicle you can buy. Many others share it. A fairly well-written example of thinking similar to mine can be found in this user review at Epinions.com (local copy).
Here I'll explain, with lots of pointers to the sources where I got the information, why the X5 lives up to BMW's motto, and in particular why it is so safe and why you would probably care about the safety difference if you knew all the facts. Before you judge the X5, you should read these links.
The NHTSA hasn't crash tested the X5 yet as of this writing. When the IIHS came out with its X5 crash test results, people started to sit up and really take notice of the X5. I've seen numerous message board postings saying things such as "I was all set to buy the [some other vehicle] but then I read the X5 crash test results and now I'm [considering buying or have bought] an X5."
The IIHS crash test results for the X5 (local copy) showed that the X5 was not only the best SUV they'd ever tested, but that it had the best performance of any vehicle they'd ever tested. "The X5's performance was outstanding.... During the offset test its occupant compartment, or safety cage, sustained very little damage. Measured intrusion into the compartment was less than in any other vehicle we have tested... Measures taken from the driver dummy indicate low likelihood of injury." They gave the X5 a best pick rating. You can also see the chart listing the X5 and other SUVs (local copy). Especially note the picture vs. the Chevy Blazer (click the upper left of the page with the chart or the local copy). This shows how much intrusion you can get into the safety cage on cars without such good structural integrity and crash absorption capability. Remember both vehicles were crashed at the same speed into a fixed barrier. The X5 is the only SUV and one of a very select crowd of cars to get across the board "good" ratings on the crash test. (Though in a separate evaluation they didn't like the headrest geometry as much, but they don't provide details on why that I can find anywhere, just the rating. Note that this is important for protecting against whiplash in collisions where you are rearended in your X5, not so much for saving lives.)
You can also read another article about the X5's IIHS crash test (local copy).
Update (11/01): crashtest.com is an excellent resource for seeing the combined results of all the different crash testing programs. The fact that the X5 has been crash tested by IIHS but no other independent programs is a mild strike against it compared with vehicles that have done well across the board. However, it is commonly held that the IIHS test is harder than the others and that some vehicles that do well in the others (e.g., NHTSA) can still do poorly in the IIHS test, but that the opposite rarely happens. To quantify this, I checked the crash tests as reported at crashtest.com for all vehicles listed (every make and model). There were hundreds of vehicles tested by IIHS overall, and several dozens did well on the NHTSA test but very poorly on the IIHS test, including many examples of vehicles that got 4 out of 5 stars from NHTSA for both driver and passenger front impact but only 1 out of 4 from IIHS. In contrast, there were only 4 examples of vehicles that did better on the IIHS test than other front impact tests. In two cases, a vehicle got a 3 out of 4 from IIHS but a 2 out of 5 from NHTSA on one side or the other (both did better on the other side). In two cases, a vehicle got a 4 out of 4 from IIHS but a 3 out of 5 from NHTSA on one side (doing better on the other). This makes it seem very unlikely that a car like the X5, which did best of all vehicles ever on the IIHS test, would do poorly in the NHTSA test if it were to be tested.
The IIHS had previously tested BMW's system using a 5-series sedan, but recently performed some tests using an X5. There are a variety of stories on this test. Here is:
If you still aren't convinced of the importance of side head airbag protection, IIHS also has on their site two quicktime videos of their earlier side pole crash test with a BMW 5-series sedan, but this time they have footage from the same model vehicle both with and without the head airbags. I can't find a direct link to the video, but their site map has a link (click on the BMW side impact test link in the lower right of the page). Note that the left side of the dummy's head is coated in blue paint, and you can see that without the head airbag, the pole that the car crashes into gets paint on it showing that the side of the head directly impacted the pole (or from the car's frame of refernce the pole crashed in and hit the dummy's head, which is exatly what oncoming vehicles, especially trucks, can do when they broadside your car, as described in the ABC news story above). Ouch.
IIHS also has photos of cars that were involed in side impacts that resulted in fatal head injuries (local copy) , but which might have been survived with airbag protection.
Edmunds recently did an in-depth review of the X5 3.0i (local copy) that echoes many of these sentiments. The Motor Trend review from this month (Dec 2000) or last (couldn't find the text on-line) echoes the comments, and according to one message board post I saw, there is another review in Car and Driver that also says the same thing. Reviews at various websites, like MSN Carpoint, as well as the summary review at Edmunds, and also the review by Consumer Reports also make these points. This review of the X5 3.0 (local copy) sums it up by saying that the X5 is "the best-behaving, most fun-to-drive vehicle of its kind out there." (Off-topic side-note for those of you with dogs: This reviewer's complaint about not being able to leave her dog in the car without setting off the alarm just shows that she didn't have time to familiarize herself with the alarm system's features, which allow easily turning off the internal motion detector temporarily for exactly this kind of situation.)
From the earlier Edmunds review of the 4.4i (which has the almost the same handling, just a bigger engine and more standard luxury features, and which is linked from the above review):
In keeping with BMW tradition and marketing philosophy, the X5 is the ultimate driving machine compared to vehicles with which it is likely to be cross-shopped. You must experience it for yourself to believe it.... Glorious, stunning and fantastic were words used by our staff to describe the X5's demeanor on pavement, that's mostly because the X5 behaves in a decidedly un-SUV manner. "You quickly forget you're driving a sport-ute," commented one smitten driver.
Update: The X5 just won the Northwest Auto Press Association award for Northwest SUV of the Year (local copy), where it was "the top scorer in the categories of steering response, maneuverability and braking." Update again: The X5 took this award for the second year in a row recently.
Update (Feb, 2001): I put together a new page comparing the handling of a large variety of vehicles in terms of their skidpad numbers. It demonstrates how much better the X5 handles than almost every other truck on the market, and how it beats many conventional cars as well.
Update (March, 2000): The X5 is now Consumer Reports overall top-rated SUV based on their test scores (according to their April auto issue), and only its newness has them still recommending the Lexus RX300 (they can't figure out reliability until a vehicle has been out for a while and had decent sales volume, and the X5 hasn't been out for long enough yet for how low-volume a vehicle it is, but they limit their official recommendations to vehicles that they are sure have good reliability).
Update (April, 2000): Automobile Magazine gave the X5 its readers' choice all-star award as the best midsize SUV, based on their survey. Here is the short news article listing all the winners (local copy).
Multiple reports on the X5 message board (see the archive section) state that the X5's center of gravity is only 3 inches higher than a 5-series sedan. Unfortunately, center of gravity height is not a commonly reported metric you can look up easily for a variety of vehicles. However, this claim was made by a number of different posters. The most authoritative sounding poster claimed to have been told at an official BMW Ultimate Driving event. If you look under the hood of an X5 you'll see that the engine is mounted quite low compared with normal engine compartments. This is just one of the engineering details BMW got right in order to keep the CoG low. One can't help but think that one of the reasons the X5 weighs so much despite the fact that there are many bigger trucks that weight less is so that there was plenty of extra weight to put low down to help keep the CoG low.
(Note that people seated in the X5 have a higher center of gravity than the truck itself, so each additional person will increase the CoG slightly. Since the vehicle weighs over 4500 lbs. without people, the increase should be small. Roof racks that are overloaded could be a significant problem though. People should always pay close attention to owners' manual instructions for packing a vehicle and using roof racks.)
Good handling also helps prevent rollovers, as it makes the vehicle less likely to get into an orientation prone to roll, so the X5's meticulously engineered 50/50 weight distribution, dynamic stability control, excellent steering response, and great handling reviews and skidpad numbers are all evidence of a lower rollover risk.
One person on the message board even stated that the X5 doesn't have the standard government warning sticker about rollovers that all SUVs have to have. I have no idea what rules dictate exactly which vehicles have to have this sticker. If anyone knows, feel free to drop me a note.
Note that there are new rollover ratings put out by the NHTSA. I cannot find the X5 in the ratings now. Before these ratings started, there was a preliminary study with a very rough set of rating that did include the X5, but these ratings were based on estimates of each vehicle's centor of gravity from a simple mathematical formula that used more easily measurable dimensions like height, so the estimated CoG for the X5 was probably a bit off. The new ratings are supposed to include measured center of gravity figures, but as a result they haven't gotten around to testing lower volume vehicles like the X5 yet. Note though that stability control, which the X5 of course has, is specifically mentioned by the NHTSA as a feature that helps prevent the accidents that can lead to rollover in the first place.
Update (2/02): Rollover risk probabilities published in USA Today a year and a half ago show that no midsized or small SUV has a lower risk of rollover. Only the extremely large Excursion and Suburban have lower risks.
The table of driver death rates by vehicle type and weight class (local copy) at the IIHS death rate statistics page (local copy) shows how much weight matters. Within each class of vehicle, heavier means fewer deaths per registered vehicle. (The SUV column used to be mislabeled pick-up trucks, making two pick-up columns, but this is fixed now.) Though there are exceptions in the table, the general trend is that heavier vehicles have fewer overall deaths per vehicle.
Of course, other things are not equal, since not all accidents are multi-vehicle collisions. Higher, heavier vehicles arguably have a disadvantage for single-vehicle accidents since a higher center of gravity leads to more rollover potential and a heavier vehicle that hits an immovable object has more energy that must be absorbed by the vehicle (eg crumple zones, airbags) to protect the occupants. How do we know that this doesn't make the X5 less safe than lower, lighter sedans? There are three important points:
Also, the better death statistics of station wagons and minivans compared with SUVs and pick-ups probably largely has to do with the better handling and driving characteristics, not inherently better crashworthiness. The X5 has handling more comparable to the station wagons of the world than the other trucks (see my handling page), and so will probably have death statistics more in line with the wagons and minivans, or perhaps even better due to the height and weight issues. (Besides, minivans don't seem to come in manual transmissions, and neither minivans nor station wagons are as good for light off-roading. Plus they just don't look as good, IMHO.)
For more discussion of the negative implications of a higher, heavier vehicle on other drivers, see my list of responses to other typical SUV criticisms.
So to summarize the important points of this section:
The data when examining specific accident types is even more compelling. In head-on collisions between cars and SUVs, 5.6 drivers of the cars died for ever 1 SUV driver. 5.4 drivers of the cars died for every van in head-on collisions between these two types, and 3 drivers died in cars for every 1 in pickups. T-shape side impacts are even worse for cars. In car-car side impacts, the 6.6 side-struck drivers die for every 1 driver of the striking "bullet" car. This compares with 30, 13, and 25 struck-car drivers dying for every one in striking SUVs, vans, and pickups, respectively. When cars strike these other vehicles, the death rates are about equal between the struck and bullet vehicles. They don't provide stats for when LTVs strike other LTVs, so the best estimate in the abscence of stats for this is probably the car-car ratio of 6.6 to 1. These statistics will probably get a bit less severe as more car-like SUVs get on the roads, but the situation probably won't change much for vans and pickups, and even with SUVs, there will be many of the early-90s-like SUVs on the road for some time to come.
In certain situations it is very difficult to prevent another vehicle from broadsiding you. To be in a car in such situations is, unfortunately, risking severy injury or death. The chances of this happening to you are small, but by no means insignificant, and the best thing you can do to protect yourself from this danger is to drive a vehicle like the X5 or other extremely safe SUVs or minivans (with side torso and head airbags and strong structural integrity).
Now to be fair, cars with side airbags and side head airbag protection systems such as curtain airbags should bring the side impact numbers down a bit and make things a bit better for the broadsided cars. Far fewer vehicles had such airbags in the years from which these statistics are taken compared with today. Hopefully, in a few years, there will be easily available reports that break down the stats by the type of airbag systems in the vehicles. Nonetheless, it seems clear that being in a light truck or van conveys an advantage in these situations, having good side airbags does as well, and these advantages are somewhat independent. In other words, one is not a full substitute for the other, so the best situation is to be in a light truck or van with such airbags. Bonus points if these systems have been tested in independently conducted side impacts as the X5's have (see above).
The Poseur 4x4 page says:
The page IS aimed at pretender SUVs and the 90% of SUV owners who never drive them off-road. Millons of lemmings buy SUVs for no reason other than to fit a trendy image and "look tough". We are not trying to tell you what to buy, that's your freedom and your decision. The best policy is to buy what you like, but only after considering all of your options and the consequences before doing so.
I agree that people shouldn't be lemmings, and I agree that what you buy is your freedom and your decision. I'm not trying to tell you that you have to buy one of the vehicles I've talked about, but I am trying to convince you to think about some of the issues I've brought up. And I've tried to provide a lot of useful info for you in one place to make that easier.
I agree that it is bad when people blindly buy traditional SUVs because they think such vehicles are safer but they don't really know anything about the issues involved. I also think it's somewhat lame (but typical) that the mom in the above mentioned ABC news story, did not even know her car had side head airbags until those airbags saved her daughter's life.
The Poseur site is right that it is silly to buy a vehicle designed and optimized for off-road driving with no intention to ever drive it off-road. But as I have argued, there are good, carefully considered reasons to like SUV form-factors even if you plan to do only very occasional, very minor off-roading, or even none at all. Luckily the X5 has come along to provide the best on-road driving characteristics you can get in SUV clothes, and in my opinion the safest vehicle you can buy at the moment.
Other health and safety related consumer info that I've collected.