Tiger Woods may be world's most powerful athlete, but in a car crash he's flesh and bone, just like everyone else. The 2009 Cadillac Escalade SUV he crashed late Thanksgiving night received the government's highest ratings for front and side crashes, and likely protected Woods from serious injury (he sustained some scrapes and bruises).
Though Woods probably wishes the car could protect him from media pressure as well, the Escalade, like Woods himself, is not perfect: It has adequate rollover ratings that preclude it from being one of the best cars to have in a crash situation. Yet it still provides far better-than-average protection, perhaps a reason as to why the Escalade was Cadillac's second-highest-selling vehicle last month, and the top-selling SUV. In short, even moderate safety sells.
To wit: Japanese automaker Subaru earned four out of 10 spots on our list of the best cars in a crash. It also reported sales last month more than 24% higher than November 2008, and up almost 14% for the year to date. The company says that 2009 will likely be Subaru's highest-selling year ever.
Obviously, that success can't be credited completely to Subaru's safety record, but it doesn't hurt either, says Russ Rader, a spokesman for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS): "It used to be almost a religion among the automakers that safety doesn't sell. Now we know that consumers are very interested in safety."
Dominick Infante, a spokesman for Subaru, points specifically to Subaru's unique boxer engine, which sits low on the chassis and slips under passengers--rather than over--during front impacts. Also helpful is the cars' three-ring construction, which reinforces body pillars from front to rear. Seemingly simple attributes like high-strength steel and special latches that attach the rear doors to the metal frame also make the cars extra durable.
"It's just intuitive in our design," Infante says. "We've always overbuilt the product."
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reports that auto crashes cost taxpayers more than $100 billion every year, and according to AAA spokesman Robert Sinclair, more than 24,056 people were killed in auto crashes last year. Injury rates are much more difficult to tally, since many injuries go unreported, but the NHTSA estimates that more than 500,000 people were injured last year as a result of distracted driving alone.
Subaru's Tribeca, Outback, Impreza and Legacy are all good options for protection against becoming a statistic. Next year's models from Honda, Lincoln and Dodge, among others, also have been proven to perform exceptionally well in the latest spate of crash tests.
Behind the numbers
Our list of the safest vehicles in a crash of 2010 comes from tests run for the Top Safety Pick Awards at the IIHS. The Institute evaluates how well each vehicle protects people in front, side, rear and rollover crashes, then selects the best-rated models to win the "Safety Pick" distinction. All candidates for the "Safety Pick" label must have electronic stability control.
For our list of best cars in a crash, we further selected only vehicles that had been tested for the 2010 model year and eliminated those in each segment that did not earn perfect or near-perfect scores of "good" in all sections. (No car in the "small car" category received a "good" score across the board, but Subaru's Impreza had the next-best safety score, with one "acceptable" rating for its structure and safety cage in a side-impact crash. The same is true of the Honda Element.) Head, neck, chest, feet, torso, pelvis, leg protection (for drivers and front or rear passengers, depending on the test) were evaluated during the tests, as was the structure of each car's safety cage.
Front crash tests rate the car's performance in a 40-mile-per-hour impact. Side evaluations are conducted after a vehicle is struck by a barrier moving at 31 mph. Rear crash protection is based on head-restraint geometry and the effects of a stationary vehicle being struck from the rear at 20 mph. Roof strength is evaluated as a metal plate is pressed against one side of a roof at a constant speed. The roof must hold four times the vehicle's weight before it collapses five inches or more.
Roof strength is a new, important component to the IIHS testing, as more than 9,000 people are killed each year in rollover crashes. The IIHS says roofs that exceed the current federal standard requirements reduce the risk of serious or fatal injury during rollovers by 50%. Every car on our list achieved a "good" score after the test.
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Image: Buick Lacrosse