Finding a safe vehicle is a top priority for many new-car buyers, especially when it comes to choosing a family vehicle like a crossover or SUV. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), a federal regulator, performs crash tests on many vehicles and ranks them using its 5-Star Safety Rating System. Although the NHTSA doesn't test and rate every model, its rankings allow shoppers to make apples-to-apples safety comparisons of those that it does rate.
The NHTSA performs three tests -- front impact, side impact and rollover -- and scores vehicles on a scale from zero to five stars for each. It also assigns an overall score of up to five stars.
Among SUVs and crossovers, we rounded up nine popular models that earned the top 5-star overall ranking in NHTSA crash testing. The list includes a range of models, from affordable 5-passenger vehicles to luxurious 7-passenger people-movers. If you need the flexibility of a crossover or SUV and excellent safety is a priority on your new-car shopping list, consider one of these 5-star choices.
2013 Kia Sportage AWD
The Kia Sportage is a 5-passenger crossover that's available in front-wheel or all-wheel drive. The more affordable front-wheel-drive Sportage has a suggested starting price of $19,000, but only the all-wheel-drive Sportage, which starts at $22,700, receives the NHTSA's 5-star rating. A higher risk of rollover precludes a top safety rating for the front-wheel-drive Sportage.
The Sportage relies on standard electronic stability control, dynamic head restraints and an array of airbags to protect passengers. Advanced safety systems such as forward collision warning are not available, but drivers can opt for equipment like parking sensors and a backup camera to aid in low-speed maneuvering.
2013 Honda CR-V
Another smaller, 5-passenger crossover that's big on safety is the Honda CR-V. Like the Sportage, the CR-V can be specified with either front-wheel drive or all-wheel drive. Unlike the Sportage, both versions of the CR-V earn the top 5-star rating.
Honda redesigned the CR-V for the 2012 model year, improving its efficiency and adding standard equipment. The 2013 model starts at $22,695 for the base CR-V LX, which includes helpful features like a backup camera and Bluetooth hands-free, which can improve safety by minimizing distraction. In addition to stability control and six airbags, the CR-V also features Honda's ACE body structure, which helps to disperse energy in a crash to better protect occupants.
2013 Hyundai Santa Fe Sport
Redesigned for the 2013 model year, the Santa Fe is available in two varieties: the 5-passenger Santa Fe Sport or 3-row Santa Fe GLS, which seats up to seven. For now, only the Santa Fe Sport has been tested by the NHTSA, earning a 5-star rating for both front-wheel and all-wheel drive versions.
In addition to seven standard airbags and standard stability control, the Santa Fe Sport features a brake assist function that applies maximum braking force in the event of a panic stop. Hyundai also employs strong yet lightweight high-strength steel in the Santa Fe's construction, which improves its structural rigidity and contributes to better handling and shorter stopping distances. The 2013 Hyundai Santa Fe Sport starts at $24,450.
2013 Toyota Venza
Perhaps the most car-like crossover on this list is the Toyota Venza, a 5-passenger vehicle based on the Toyota Camry. With a refreshed design for the 2013 model year, the Venza offers drivers the flexibility of an SUV coupled with driving dynamics similar to a sedan. The Venza scored a 5-star rating from the NHTSA for both front-wheel-drive and all-wheel-drive models.
With a starting price of $27,850, the Venza comes well-equipped to protect passengers. Seven airbags supplement Toyota's STAR Safety System, which includes technology like stability control, brake assist and Smart Stop Technology (SST). When the driver presses the brake pedal and accelerator simultaneously, SST reduces engine power. This technology is designed to reduce the risk of unintended acceleration.
2013 Ford Explorer
When SUVs first gained popularity, the Ford Explorer was one of the vehicles that defined the segment. The current 2013 model continues to offer drivers a safe and affordable choice with 3-row seating for up to seven passengers. The latest Explorer earned a 5-star rating for both front-wheel-drive and all-wheel-drive models and has a starting price of $29,100.
The Explorer's list of safety equipment now includes knee airbags for the front passenger, along with side curtain airbags designed to protect 1- and 2-row occupants. For drivers that use their SUVs to tow a boat, camper or other trailer, the Explorer includes standard trailer-sway control for better and more predictable handling. Curve Control is another Ford safety feature included on the Explorer. It can slow the vehicle by up to 10 miles per hour if the driver dives too quickly into a sharp turn.
2013 Volvo XC60
Volvo has long focused on building safety into its vehicles and the 5-passenger XC60 is no exception. Available in front-wheel drive or all-wheel drive, the premium SUV earned a 5-star rating from the NHTSA thanks to the safety equipment you'd expect in a Volvo, plus some advanced active safety technologies that are likely to become more common in the future.
Just as airbags and anti-lock brakes trickled through automakers' product lines decades ago, features like Volvo's City Safe system may be widespread a few years from now. In the XC60, the City Safe feature reduces the risk of collisions by monitoring the road ahead in slow, stop-and-go traffic. Should the driver fail to brake when a non-moving object is ahead, the XC60 will apply the brakes automatically. City Safe is standard across the XC60 lineup, starting with the $34,350 base model.
2013 Buick Enclave
Buick's luxurious 3-row Enclave earns recognition here for its 5-star rating from the NHTSA, but it's not the only General Motors crossover to receive a top safety rating. The Enclave's sister models, the Chevrolet Traverse and GMC Acadia, are also 5-star rated and offer similar capabilities in different packages. The 2013 Buick Enclave, which puts the focus on comfort and luxury, starts at $39,270 including delivery.
Available in front-wheel or all-wheel drive, the recently updated Enclave includes an array of airbags including head protection for the third row. A front center airbag, designed to keep driver and passenger from colliding, is an industry first. Buick also offers several advanced driver assistance features on the Enclave, like a blind spot monitoring system and a rear cross-traffic alert that warns the driver of passing pedestrians, cyclists or vehicles when backing up.
2013 Lexus RX 350 AWD
Of three versions of the RX 5-passenger crossover from Lexus, only one earns the NHTSA's top 5-star rating: the all-wheel-drive RX 350. The front-wheel-drive RX 350 and the hybrid RX 450h both come up short, posting 4-star ratings despite similar safety equipment. While the NHTSA reports similar results among the three models for passenger safety in front and side impacts, the all-wheel-drive RX 350 performs best in rollover testing, which is how it earned the higher rating.
Ten standard airbags, active front head restraints and Smart Stop Technology are all included. Drivers that can afford to move up from the all-wheel-drive RX 350 model's $41,060 starting price can add advanced driver assistance and safety equipment like the Lexus Pre-Collision System, which warns the driver and prepares the brakes when an imminent collision is detected.
2013 Mercedes-Benz ML
Another 5-passenger luxury SUV with 5-star safety is the Mercedes-Benz ML, which earns top marks for both rear-wheel-drive and all-wheel-drive models. Like the Lexus RX, the ML also bolsters safety with an advanced collision warning system. But Mercedes provides its Collision Prevention Assist as standard on all four ML models: the diesel ML350 Bluetec, the gasoline V6-powered ML350, the V8-powered ML550 and the high-performance ML63.
Another standard safety feature for the ML is Attention Assist, which monitors steering and alerts the driver when it detects steering behavior indicative of a drowsy driver. Mercedes also offers optional driver assistance systems like lane departure warning and a blind spot monitor. The 2013 ML starts at $49,770.
With so many crossovers and SUVs available, narrowing the field to find one that suits your particular needs can be a chore. But if top safety performance is a priority, considering those that score a 5-star safety rating from the NHTSA is a good start. The list certainly includes a range of vehicles from economical to luxurious, providing a safe choice for most new-car budgets.