These days, there are more cars that can go 200 mph than there are cars with top safety ratings. Way more.
That's because the speed and styling of supercars seem to attract more customers to a brand than airbags and anti-lock brakes. While Ford Motor's S2RV (Safety Scientific Research Vehicle) prototype of 2003 never became a production car, the racy Ford GT40 prototype of 2002 did — in the form of the limited-edition, 550-hp GT supercar. Ford looks a lot sexier with the GT as its flagship, and, as they say in advertising, sex sells.
Sex appeal can translate into big sales volume, but safety technology almost never does. With the exception of Honda Motor, the brands that are most famous for building safe cars — Volvo and German car companies such as DaimlerChrysler's Mercedes-Benz subsidiary — are not volume players.
The fact that Volvo is singular in its prioritization of safety tells us other automakers aren't confident that safe cars will lead to profits. Mercedes does not make safety its top selling point, but it advertises powerful engines and swank interiors while touting its safety technology.
So we were not surprised to find that the list of the market's safest cars is, once again, a very short one. This year, only four vehicles managed to achieve the highest possible ratings in our evaluations. (Last year's list included only five). Specifically, only four cars have Consumer Reports' highest rating for accident avoidance, as well as perfect crash-test scores across the board from either the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration or the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.
We only looked at cars that NHTSA and the IIHS tested in all of their available categories: for NHTSA, two front-impact tests, two side-impact tests and a rollover resistance test; for the IIHS, front, side and rear tests.
To be fair, part of the list's brevity also comes from the fact that Consumer Reports, NHTSA and the IIHS do not test every car on the market; nor do the crash-testing agencies put each car through every test. The organizations we consulted try to assess a broad range of vehicles, but they lack the data or the resources to do all of them. For example, 2006 models not tested by NHTSA include BMW's 5 Series sedan and Nissan Motor's Infiniti G35 line.
The difference between a good crash-test rating and a poor one is significant: A five-star NHTSA frontal-crash rating means a chance of serious injury of 10% or less in a head-on collision in which each vehicle is going 35 mph. A one-star rating means a chance of 46% or higher. NHTSA defines a "serious injury" as one that requires immediate hospitalization and may be life-threatening.
If the results of our research teach us one key lesson besides which cars to buy, it is this: You should get side airbags if they are optional. Models without side airbags are prone to lower crash-test scores, and all five cars in the slide show earned their perfect scores partly because of side airbags, with which each vehicle was equipped when NHTSA or the IIHS crashed it.
A final note on methodology: We excluded from consideration all vehicles that are headed for discontinuation or replacement within the next few months.
What may surprise you is that despite this story's introduction, the four cars that made our list are sexy in their own ways.