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Buying a Safe Used Car

What Will Your Daughter Drive?

Culling the List of Used-Car Options
Based on Safety and Reliability
May 14, 2007; Page D5

Buying a car that’s appropriate for a teenage driver is no easy task. But since I may have to attempt it soon, I decided to dust off the Eyes on the Road Teen Car Search System.

My younger daughter, who is six months away from qualifying for a driver’s license, has somehow acquired a robust interest in cars. She has strong opinions about the kind of ride she wants, and clipped out of the newspaper a dozen or so classified ads for cars she’d be willing to drive. (See the list) Let’s assume I am willing to spend the money, so as to free myself of the occasional obligation to act as a part-time taxi driver. Should I buy one of the cars on her list?

The system I use is nothing fancy. It’s based on correlating information that’s available on the Web in several different places. I started where most experts in automotive safety say you should begin a search for a young person’s car, ruling out body-on-frame pickup trucks and sport-utility vehicles. These vehicles, with their high centers of gravity and higher-than-average rollover risk, can be unforgiving in the hands of an inexperienced driver.

That limits the field mainly to passenger cars. Safety experts prefer larger cars with smaller engines. Many teens like smaller cars, especially now with gasoline around $3 a gallon.

I decided to first look for used cars with head-protecting side airbags as either standard or optional equipment. Fortunately, sifting for vehicles with a specific feature on a car shopping Web site is getting easier. Kelley Blue Book ( has a function called “perfect car finder” that helped me to sort for vehicles with head-protecting airbags priced below $15,000. Other car shopping sites have, or soon will have, similar functions. That price level may be too high for some families, and it might seem not enough for others. But based on the results, that price seemed about right to give me a choice of later model compacts, and older midsize or large models.

From there, I tried to narrow the field to vehicles that had at least average reliability scores, as measured by Consumer Reports, and had good safety ratings from both the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

My filters didn’t let a lot of my daughter’s picks get through.

Right away, one of my daughter’s favorite cars fell by the wayside. That’s the original Scion xB, the boxy little mini-wagon, known to its fans as the “Toaster.” The Scion xB has been a sales hit for Toyota Motor Corp.

But this vehicle, designed for the Japanese market, is very light — just about 2,500 pounds — and lacks head-protecting side airbags. It earned three out of five stars on the NHTSA side impact test – and garnered a “poor” side impact score from the Insurance Institute. The new Scion xB, launching now, has head-protecting side airbags and is larger overall, the better to protect occupants. But the new xB is less of a bargain with a starting price of $15,650, up $1,620 from the old model.

Another car my daughter picked out of the classifieds, based on its low price, was a 2004 Chevrolet Cavalier. But it fell off the list because it was rated poor on the Insurance Institute’s front crash test, and earned only one star for side-impact protection from the NHTSA. Indeed, NHTSA’s site flags the Cavalier’s side impact score with a boldface black “safety concern” label. A 2002 Chevy Malibu had “acceptable” crash ratings from NHTSA, but Consumer Reports labels it “much worse than average” for reliability.

Sometimes the data conflicted. A 2004 Kia Spectra, well within the target price range, has side-curtain airbags. It got a four-star ratings from NHTSA for both front and driver’s side-impact protection. But the IIHS rated it poor in its frontal crash test.

The 2001 Toyota Corolla, a paragon of reliability according to Consumer Reports, merits only four stars out of five for front crash safety and three out of five for side-impact protection on NHTSA’s test.

[2005 Honda Accord]


2005 Honda Accord

Among the cars that stood out from the pack is the 2005 Honda Accord LX. It has five star NHTSA front crash ratings and four-star side-impact ratings. It earned “good” ratings from IIHS, and has demonstrated much-better-than-average reliability. A two-year old Accord has a likely selling price of around $14,000, according to

Another good choice would be a 2006 Honda Civic, with a five-star front, four-star side crash rating from NHTSA, double “good” scores from the IIHS, better-than-average quality scores and a price pegged just under $15,000.

A 2002 Volvo S60 also makes the cut. NHTSA gave it a four-star front crash rating, five star side. It has a “good” score from the Insurance Institute and Consumer Reports rates it better than average. Likely price: Around $13,270 according to

This points out a good strategy for scoring a second-hand car with better-than-average safety technology — buy a used luxury car. You may pay about the same for a five- or six-year-old luxury car that you would for a much newer, mass-market brand model. But European luxury cars, such as the Audi A4, moved more rapidly than mainstream American and Japanese brands to adopt side airbags and anti-lock brakes.

A Volkswagen Passat of 2001 or 2004 vintage got over the bar with NHTSA scores of five stars for front crash, four-star ratings for side-impact protection. It has side curtain airbags and an average rating for reliability.

If you can find a 2004 Chevy Impala with the optional side airbags it scored five front, four side on NHTSA’s tests, a “good” score on the IIHS front crash test and scores average on reliability.

I looked at two other popular midsized cars: the 2004 Toyota Camry and 2004 Ford Taurus. The Camry and Taurus didn’t score as well the Impala on the NHTSA front crash test, with four-star ratings each. Both are rated good by the IIHS for performance in its front crash test. The Camry scored a good for side-impact protection, when equipped with optional side-curtain airbags. The Taurus has no side-impact score from the IIHS, but rated a better than average reliability rating from Consumer Reports, and the Camry earned a much better than average rating from Consumer Reports. As with the Impala, the key is to make sure the used car you buy has the optional side airbags.

My daughter was pleased to learn that the Pontiac Vibe, a youth oriented mini-wagon that’s in plentiful supply in the Detroit area, got through the hurdles. But the Vibe also illustrates how the welter of different rating systems used by the various scorekeepers of automotive goodness can be confusing for consumers.

The 2004 Pontiac Vibe earned a five-star front and a five-star side crash rating from NHTSA — and there aren’t that many cars that get a five-star side-impact score. This is somewhat surprising, because the 2004 Vibe was tested without side airbags, according to NHTSA’s site. The car did have available chest-protecting side airbags from 2003 on, according to a Pontiac spokesman. (The IIHS doesn’t post a ranking for the model.) Consumer Reports rates the Vibe much better than average. And this may be a selling point for some: The Vibe and the mechanically similar Toyota Matrix are both built by union workers in a California factory that’s owned by a joint venture of Toyota and General Motors Corp.

But when NHTSA retested 2005 model Vibes, following some design changes to the interior, it got only three stars for front seat occupant protection in the government side-impact crash test. A spokesman for Pontiac says the Vibe’s chest-protecting side airbag was made less powerful in 2005 in response to a change in NHTSA’s test. The change was aimed at making cars safer for very small drivers. But the less powerful side airbag resulted in less protection for a larger driver.

NHTSA hasn’t posted a side-impact score for the 2007 model Vibe equipped with side-curtain airbags. So the 2004 Vibe is provisionally on my list, although I would rather hold out for a car that had good scores AND head-protecting side airbags.

My daughter may not be excited about the prospect that the “right” car for her could be something as plain as a second-hand Honda Accord. Then again, she could just keep on riding her bike.



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