Like the newest luxury technologies, cutting-edge safety technologies tend to debut on vehicles that are out of reach for the average new car shopper. Even the driver's front airbag, now required by law in America, wasn't available in all vehicles until over a decade after its consumer debut. This was also the case for luxury advancements like power windows and even air conditioning. But while riding luxuriously is something most drivers can live without, feeling safe is certainly not.
Fortunately, car manufacturers reciprocate the large and growing consumer focus on safety. Car safety information is now more accessible than ever, thanks to websites like Safercar.gov, so a model that tests poorly won't go unnoticed. And when a model tests well, its manufacturer is always eager to promote the star-studded crash test ratings.
To continue racking up the stars, carmakers must keep pace with emerging technologies, as well as the evolving standards of the government-sponsored National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and other independent vehicle safety researchers. There are a number of factors involved, but here's the upshot: a new list of must-have safety features is forming, and many are now available without having to spring for a luxury ride.
Electronic Stability Control (ESC)
At the top of that list is Electronic Stability Control, which is fast becoming an industry-wide standard for accident avoidance technology. In fact, the government has dictated that ESC will be required in all sub-10,000 lb. passenger vehicles starting in the year 2012. Though that may seem far away, the technology has already made a permanent mark on the industry.
It's particularly useful in poor weather conditions, or when pushing the car to the edge of its capabilities. Specialized sensors monitor the traction of each tire, and immediately work to correct a skid or loss of control. The system does this in two ways: either by applying brakes to only the affected tire(s) or by providing more power for the tire(s) with the most grip.
Different manufacturers use different acronyms for it, but the technology remains the same. Thankfully, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) has conveniently chronicled the list of names that manufacturers use to market ESC.
Side Curtain Airbags
Side curtain airbags are another feature with remarkable life-saving potential. And, like ESC, they are on their way to nationwide adoption — by 2013, side curtain airbags will be mandatory in all vehicles.
Front airbags are an indispensable part of a safe ride, but crashes can happen from all angles. Side curtain airbags deploy during side-impact crashes, normally from an area above the driver- or passenger-side window. Many manufacturers have these airbags deploy in conjunction with other side airbags, which protect the chest as curtain airbags protect the head.
Anti-lock Braking Systems (ABS)
Though they aren't breaking news for anybody, anti-lock braking systems are still just optional on many new vehicles. ABS will mechanically pump the brakes for you during a sudden stop, as long as pressure is consistently applied to the brake pedal. That last point is crucial — many drivers who have ABS don't take full advantage of it, either because they're used to manually pumping the brakes or because they instinctively lift their right foot when the system kicks in.
With that in mind, the safe choice is opting in for ABS, and getting to know how the system works. ABS can reduce overall stopping distances in certain driving conditions, and since the wheels will never lock up, it allows you to remain in control and concentrate on steering to safety.
Tire Pressure Monitoring Systems (TPMS)
As your only physical connection with the road, properly inflated tires are a must. They reduce the risk of blowouts, promote even tread wear, create a more comfortable ride and even improve fuel economy. But while every driver should have a tire pressure gauge stashed in the glove box, it's easy to forget to perform a pressure check every month.
Enter tire pressure monitoring systems. There are several types of TPMS out there, but they all provide a helpful warning light on the dashboard when one or more tires is under-inflated to the point of being a safety hazard. While no TPMS will provide the accuracy of manually checking your tire pressure, it is a helpful line of defense against a serious road risk. According to the NHTSA, all new vehicles manufactured after September 1st, 2007, come equipped with TPMS.
2008 Safety All Stars
Without further ado, here are five of the IIHS' Top Safety Picks for the 2008 model year. In order to be a 2008 Top Safety Pick, a vehicle must have available ESC and some sort of side-impact head protection technology (usually side curtain airbags). These selections also received "Good" ratings on front, side and rear crash tests from the IIHS.
These vehicles all sport an MSRP below $25k — even with the addition of ESC when not standard. However, please note that prices can vary based on location, supply and many other factors.
Small Car – 2008 Subaru Impreza
(Note: ESC is optional on this vehicle as part of the Premium Package)
Midsize Car – 2008 Honda Accord
Large Car – 2008 Ford Taurus
(Note: ESC is optional on this vehicle as part of the Safety and Security Package)
Small SUV – 2008 Honda CR-V
Large Truck – 2008 Toyota Tundra
Now that you know some key features and standout models to look for, you can find a car in your area on AutoTrader.com. Just remember that doing your homework is essential to finding the best and safest car for you and your family. And while a set budget can stand in the way of being the first on your block to have that hot, new luxury trend, it doesn't have to stand in the way of your family's safety, or your own peace of mind.
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