Image: 2008 Audi Q7 S-Line
Harvey Schwartz  /  ZUMA Press
Want a safe ride for 2009? Try the Audi Q7, which earned the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's highest crash-test rating.
updated 10/1/2008 5:42:06 PM ET 2008-10-01T21:42:06

Mom and Dad told you to look both ways before you cross the street. But they likely never advised you to buy a car that would keep you safe while driving down it.

Today's parents might suggest the 2009 Audi Q7. It earned the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration highest crash-test ratings of five stars. It also earned the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety's highest rating of triple "good" in front, side and rear impact testing. It has driver and passenger head restraint whiplash protection, front side airbags for chest and pelvis protection and energy-absorbing padding under the instrument panel to protect feet and legs.

Other safe 2009 models include the Mitsubishi Outlander, Volvo XC90, Saturn Vue and the Mercedes-Benz M Class.

This is an important time to shop around for a car. In an attempt to shed inventory, dealers are offering hefty incentives on 2008 and 2009 vehicles.

The Volvo XC90 dealer incentive is up to $4,250 on select models through programs offered by participating dealers. The all-wheel-drive SUV gets a combined 16 mpg, meaning that a motorist driving 15,000 miles per year and paying the current national average gas price of $3.84 a gallon would pay $3,600 annually to fill up. The incentive — which expires Sept. 30 —essentially pays for a year's worth of gas.

Shoppers will find a $2,000 discount on the GMC Acadia and the Saturn Vue, and will get $1,000 off the Taurus X.

Behind the numbers
These and the other vehicles on our list earned the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration highest crash-test ratings of five stars (though the SUVs earned only four stars for rollover resistance). The highest rating for IIHS is "good" and these vehicles also earned triple "good" ratings in front-, side- and rear-impact testing. These organizations gauged all models available for testing by Sept. 12.

SUVs dominate the list — and that's a good thing in this economy.

SUV sales were down 33.1 percent during the first eight months of the year, and now — with gas prices still hovering at a national average of $3.84 per gallon and automakers struggling — big discounts are being offered on SUVs to move them off dealers' lots.

With this incentive, prices at the pump don't hit the wallet as hard, and when it comes to protecting drivers and passengers in a crash, there are few safer cars on the road.

It's enough to make SUVs appealing to consumers who can't follow the trend to smaller — albeit more fuel-efficient — cars, whether they have larger families or an outdoorsy lifestyle.

"There is pent-up demand for SUVs," says James Bell, editor and publisher of IntelliChoice.com, a consumer automotive information Web site. "There are people who need to pull a trailer, need space for a large family and want the utility of an SUV. Their needs don't change when gas prices go up or down."

What SUVs lack in fuel efficiency, they make up for in safety for the driver and passengers.

The Subaru Forester comes equipped with a seat-position sensor on the driver's track that detects if the driver is sitting too close to the air bag, in which case the system delays deployment of the air bag's second stage: front-seat side-impact airbags for thorax-area protection.

Similarly, the GMC Acadia features full-length side curtain airbags that offer added protection in a crash. Honda's 2008 and 2009 model-year RDX SUVs are designed with front and rear impact-absorbing crumple zones and side-impact door beams to better protect occupants in a crash.

If, for some reason, the consumer is choosing between a small, fuel-efficient car and an SUV, and the deciding factor is safety, the SUV is the way to go, says Dan Edmunds, director of vehicle testing for Edmunds.com.

"There isn't much between you and the rest of the world in a small car," says Edmunds. "For some people, safety is the number one concern, and for others, well, if it gets a three- or four-star rating, that's enough for them."

© 2012 Forbes.com

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