Thanks to decades of advancements in automotive safety and engineering, new vehicles have never been safer. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), the federal agency that crash-tests new cars and rates motor vehicle safety, continues to raise the bar with more rigorous standards for its 5-star safety ratings. While NHTSA does not crash-test every new vehicle, the majority of the most popular models undergo its regimen. Those tests include frontal and side crash tests along with a rollover assessment.
Under the 5-star rating system, a top overall score suggests that a particular vehicle offers the best protection for occupants in the event of a crash. But not all 5-star ratings are the same. Dozens of models earn the highest overall rating, but only nine new vehicles ace the frontal, side and crash tests that contribute to the top rating and earn five stars in every section of NHTSA testing. This group -- which includes sedans, coupes and a hatchback but no SUVs, crossovers or trucks -- represents the safest new cars for 2014.
The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), a privately funded organization, also performs crash tests and publishes new-vehicle safety ratings. Like NHTSA, IIHS has improved its testing methods and ratings system to urge auto manufacturers to continue pushing for better safety. IIHS added a small overlap front crash test to its program and created the Top Safety Pick+ rating for the vehicles that perform best overall. Five of the nine vehicles on this list have been tested by both NHTSA and IIHS.
2014 Audi A4/S4
The Audi A4 sedan and its high-performance sister model, the S4, both aced each category in NHTSA crash testing to earn 5-star overall ratings. Base front-wheel-drive versions and those with optional Quattro all-wheel drive each earned 5-star ratings in frontal and side crash tests and rollover protection. Audi also offers optional safety technology recommended by NHTSA, such as forward collision warning.
But IIHS ratings for the $33,800 Audi A4 fail to match up. The A4 is the only vehicle on this list that received a Poor rating in one IIHS category, the small overlap front crash test. Because that test is new, automakers will likely respond to low marks with design changes that improve their vehicles' performance in the test.
2014 Cadillac ATS
Another small luxury sedan, this one from Cadillac, also earned 5-star ratings across the board. Like the A4, the Cadillac ATS offers top-rated safety in every category for both front- and all-wheel-drive models. Two advanced safety technologies recommended by NHTSA are available: forward collision warning and lane departure warning. But shoppers will have to select the optional Driver Awareness package on top of the $33,065 base ATS to get the extra safety features.
2014 Chevrolet Camaro
The latest Camaro proves that safety and performance aren't mutually exclusive. In fact, the same characteristics that make a car sporty -- sharp steering and powerful brakes, for example -- can also help make it safe by helping drivers to avoid accidents. Of course, crash testing isn't about avoiding crashes. Its goal is to determine how well occupants fare when a crash does occur. For the hardtop Camaro coupe, 5-star ratings in frontal, side and rollover crash tests suggest excellent occupant protection. Interestingly, the convertible version of the car also aces the rollover test, but NHTSA hasn't yet tested the ragtop in the other two categories.
2014 Ford Focus Electric
NHTSA has tested and rated all three versions of the Ford Focus, and has awarded each with a 5-star overall safety rating. But only one, the Ford Focus Electric, aced all three of its test categories. The conventional, gasoline-powered Focus sedan and hatchback each received four stars in the front and rollover tests. The plug-in Focus Electric hatchback, meanwhile, outdid its sister models. The electric version of the Focus is pricier than the gas models, but it comes with more features and is cheaper to operate. Plus, Focus Electric buyers may qualify for federal and local incentives for EV buyers.
2014 Honda Accord Coupe
Like three other models on this list, the Honda Accord Coupe can boast top ratings from both NHTSA and IIHS. In addition to a 5-star rating in every NHTSA test category, the 2-door Accord gets the Top Safety Pick+ designation from IIHS. The 4-door Accord sedan, meanwhile, gets a 4-star rating in NHTSA's front crash test but still earns five stars overall. Interestingly, the sedan actually performs better than the Accord Coupe in IIHS ratings, though both earn a Top Safety Pick+.
2014 Kia Optima and Optima Hybrid
Available in both hybrid and conventional versions, Kia's midsize Optima matches the Accord Coupe with top ratings across the board in NHTSA testing, bolstered by a Top Safety Pick+ designation from IIHS. Unlike the Honda, neither advanced safety technology recommended by NHTSA -- forward collision warning or lane departure warning -- are available on the Optima. Still, the $21,500 Optima offers excellent safety at a price that no other vehicle on this list can beat.
2014 Subaru Legacy
Just as it does on all but one of its models, Subaru provides all-wheel drive as standard equipment for its midsize Legacy sedan. The improved traction and handling could help some drivers to avoid accidents altogether. Should an accident occur, crash tests suggest that the Legacy protects occupants with the highest levels of safety. In addition to 5-star NHTSA ratings in every category, this Subaru earns an IIHS Top Safety Pick+ and offers both forward collision warning and lane departure warning. Only the pricier Volvo S60 can match these credentials.
2014 Tesla Model S
The second all-electric vehicle on the list of safest 2014 vehicles is the Tesla Model S, a luxury car with a $70,000 price tag. Although the Model S has been the subject of a few highly publicized instances of fire and a recent safety recall, the EV scored at the top of every category of NHTSA testing. Neither forward collision warning nor lane departure warning are available, which is a surprise considering the Tesla's price. Shoppers who want an EV for the economic benefit, but who don't want to compromise on safety, may be better off with the Focus Electric.
2014 Volvo S60
Volvo has long been recognized for building safety into its models, and the new S60 is no exception. It earned 5-star ratings in every NHTSA crash-test category, earned a Top Safety Pick+ designation from IIHS and includes forward collision warning as standard equipment to help all S60 drivers avoid crashes.
Dig deep into the S60's NHTSA ratings and you'll find a nearly flawless safety report. Side crash ratings, for example, are based on three different results, and the S60 aced every one. Both front- and all-wheel-drive versions received the top scores, so shoppers prioritizing safety can confidently choose any S60 model.
Of course, there's more to safety than just crash-test ratings. NHTSA and IIHS tests are performed under strictly controlled conditions. Far more variables come into play in real-world collisions. Plus, not all new vehicles have been tested, so this list misses some vehicles that will later earn top marks. But for now, these 5-star crash-test ratings offer shoppers a good benchmark for safety. By that measure, these nine vehicles reflect the best occupant protection currently available among 2014 models.
What it means to you: Shoppers who include safety among their top priorities should consider one of these nine cars that aced each category to earn a 5-star overall safety score from NHTSA.