Cheap, safe car
June 22, 2010 6:37 PM   Subscribe

Can you recommend the cheapest safe, new car?

I'm looking for a new car (non-negotiable) with 5-star safety ratings that is as cheap as can be. This doesn't just mean the lowest possible price, but might include factors like maintenance, mileage, and insurance costs.

(Based on my own assumptions about gas prices, assume that hybrid cars are more expensive than their counterparts.)

Can you recommend a specific model or a resource that I might use to investigate?
posted by Suciu to Shopping (34 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Consumer Reports often reviews cars. Your local library should have copies.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 6:47 PM on June 22, 2010

They're not exactly super cheap out the door, but a Subaru Impreza sedan with the non-turbocharged 2.5L boxer gets about 26 MPG highway and is 5 star crash rated. Maintenance costs are pretty low, and it will run for 200,000+ miles. You probably will not find a safer, more reliable vehicle.
posted by ganzhimself at 6:47 PM on June 22, 2010

I think you're looking at $16,500 for a starting price on a 2010 Impreza i.
posted by ganzhimself at 6:49 PM on June 22, 2010

Honda Fit... Dual + side airbags, plus a reinforced frame to protect against t-bone collisions. It's cheap, and fits a lot of stuff. I love my Fit.
posted by KokuRyu at 6:49 PM on June 22, 2010 [3 favorites]

Kias are cheap and get good safety ratings.
posted by corey flood at 6:55 PM on June 22, 2010

You ought to maybe look at Subaru. All their vehicles have 5-star crash ratings (and they are the only manufacturer to boast this). Not just that, all their vehicles have all-wheel drive and a low center of gravity thanks to the Boxer engine, so it relatively easier to keep them under control and avoid accidents. They are very reliable so won't leave you stranded (an important component of safety).

They're not as inexpensive as a Kia or Hyundai, but they have an available continuously-variable transmission on some models that gets very good fuel economy (better than the stick, in fact). I have this transmission on my 2010 Legacy 2.5L 4-cylinder and it gets 23/31. For comparison, our 2003 Hyunda Elantra gets 23/33. The Legacy is a much larger car and has AWD! Of course this transmission isn't available on the base models, it seems, so the fuel you save probably won't make it worth the money.
posted by kindall at 6:56 PM on June 22, 2010 [1 favorite]

Seconding the fit. We just got one. In general, as far as maintenance costs go, the advice we got was to stay away from German cars because they cost an arm and a leg to repair and to stick with Japanese cars because they're reliable, safe, and cheap to repair.
posted by kthxbi at 6:58 PM on June 22, 2010

Where are you?
posted by Daddy-O at 7:01 PM on June 22, 2010


That is all.
posted by InsanePenguin at 7:08 PM on June 22, 2010

Do you want a five-star rating in all categories (frontal driver, frontal passenger, side driver, side passenger, rollover), or will five stars in most categories suffice?
posted by mr_roboto at 7:08 PM on June 22, 2010

I think you're looking at $16,500 for a starting price on a 2010 Impreza i.

I'm in NJ, so YMMV, but I doubt this. If this was true, I'd be driving an Impreza instead of a Kia Soul. The Impreza was my first choice but despite searching all over, I couldn't find one with basic features that was under $20k.

I do so adore my Soul, however.
posted by InsanePenguin at 7:11 PM on June 22, 2010 (I think) will give you TCO (total cost of ownership) numbers for new cars.
posted by chesty_a_arthur at 7:14 PM on June 22, 2010

I'm in NJ, so YMMV, but I doubt this. If this was true, I'd be driving an Impreza instead of a Kia Soul. The Impreza was my first choice but despite searching all over, I couldn't find one with basic features that was under $20k.

I suppose so... I was almost considering going with a new basic Impreza sedan, but I REALLY wanted a WRX wagon... At the Subaru dealership I was at their "online" price was just around 16,500 on the base Impreza sedans.
posted by ganzhimself at 7:18 PM on June 22, 2010

IIHS's top safety picks 2010 with links (sidebar) to their ratings of each model of car. They do tests that are a bit more demanding than the tests done by the government.

There is still a problem with even the IIHS tests, though, which they describe here (includes info specifically on the Honda Fit among others). The normal tests crash cars against objects of equal mass to the car being tested, so small cars get crashed against small masses, and large cars against large masses. This means the safety of small cars is exaggerated by the tests - small cars seem safer in the tests than they are in the real world. A five-star safety rated small car will not be as safe as a five-star safety rated medium-sized car. Small cars are cheaper and get better gas mileage, but you have to take the safety rankings with this grain of salt.

Insurance losses by make and model of car, note that this data is for previous model years, so if a model has been re-designed for 2010 it might be misleading.

When we were recently looking at cars, I found and Consumer Reports to be very valuable resources. (Edmunds also has a nice series Confessions of a Car Salesman, on techniques car dealers use to sneakily inflate the price or pressure you when buying, worth a look.)
posted by LobsterMitten at 7:37 PM on June 22, 2010 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Wow! Thanks for the quick responses! I'm looking up some of the choices you mentioned...

A few things:
-I'm in CA
-5 star in most categories is just fine. It doesn't have to be all.
posted by Suciu at 7:38 PM on June 22, 2010

Yeah, I think that Honda Jazz (Fit for you) is the car you may be looking for
posted by wilful at 7:48 PM on June 22, 2010

The IIHS is a better resource for crash-safety information than the NHTSA, in my opinion. Their Top Safety Pick list, linked above, is a great place to start.

Consider also that the size of a vehicle affects safety. Minicars that do very well in single-car crashes will not be safe in collisions with even mid-sized vehicles (check out the video at the top right of the linked page).

So I would go down the list of mid-sized Top Safety Picks. Offhand, based on the price of the car and the manufacturer's recent reputation for quality, I would look at the Ford Fusion, Hyundai Sonata, Subaru Legacy/Outback and Chevrolet Malibu. You'll pay a fuel economy penalty with the Subaru because of AWD, so I would recommend you look at the other three. The 2010 Fusion and 2011 Sonata are particularly great, in my opinion.
posted by Dasein at 8:00 PM on June 22, 2010 [1 favorite]

Look at Hyundais and Kias (same parent company). Not sure how all their safety ratings are, but their basic bumper-to-bumper warranty runs for five years or 60,000 miles (as opposed to the 3-year, 36,000 mile warranty you get from most brands).

My Hyundai Elantra has been great nearly 5 years in.
posted by Doohickie at 8:28 PM on June 22, 2010

Ooh- the Kia Soul is one of the top picks in the IIHS ratings. If I were in the market right this minute, that would be very high on my list.
posted by Doohickie at 8:40 PM on June 22, 2010

The normal tests crash cars against objects of equal mass to the car being tested, so small cars get crashed against small masses, and large cars against large masses.

That's not how I understand it. From what I understand, all of the cars are crashed into a wall (which doesn't move once it's been hit). Therefore, a Fit crashing into a wall at 40 MPH is the same as two Fits crashing head-on both going at 40 MPH.

So, if both a Fit and an Accord get 5-star ratings, you'd much rather be in the Accord when it hits a Fit head-on because it will perform better than in the wall test and the Fit will perform worse...
posted by StarmanDXE at 8:48 PM on June 22, 2010

I almost got a Fit but the ride was awful on Indiana's terrible roads. (My mom sat in the back seat on the test drive and when I hit a bump, her head hit the ceiling, and I was NOT driving that fast.) I got a Chevy Cobalt instead. I don't think the ratings are 5-star, but my 2006 Cobalt saved my life in a nasty accident, and the 2009 is improved from that.
posted by IndigoRain at 8:55 PM on June 22, 2010

The NYTimes had a nice article and separate blog post on the IIHS study of small vs. midsized cars in a collision that was mentioned above. From the blog post:
In these new tests, instead of crashing into a barrier, both vehicles crashed into each other (still offset [roughly 40% contact]) with each traveling about 40 miles an hour. In these types of crashes, the larger vehicle pushes the smaller one backwards. Occupants in the lighter vehicle experience greater force than those in the other vehicle, which translates to a greater chance of injury. The institute’s ratings are based on how far the larger vehicle intrudes into the occupant compartment of the smaller one, what kind of crash forces are recorded on the driver dummies and how much the dummy moves during the crash.

Intrusion into the Fit’s occupant compartment was “extensive,” officials said, which meant a high risk of leg injury. Also, the dummy’s head struck the steering wheel through the airbag.
posted by ZeusHumms at 10:26 PM on June 22, 2010 [1 favorite]

Nissan Versa, and Nissan Cube. 5-star safety ratings, one's boring with tons of back seat room, and the other's funky with tons of headroom. Both are cheap to purchase and to operate, and the Versa is (according to my insurance company) one of the cheapest cars to insure in the US.
posted by davejay at 11:00 PM on June 22, 2010

note the Versa isn't in the top ratings because it doesn't have stability control like the Cube does, which is a prerequisite for the top ratings -- but otherwise it rates similarly to the Cube.
posted by davejay at 11:02 PM on June 22, 2010

My Kia Rio is SO cute and SO much fun to drive, and it has airbags EVERYWHERE. It has a good safety ratings for a car its size, but from what I understand, the Soul is a little better. I paid around $14,500 for it in the Midwest. I initially started checking out Kia because a mechanic-friend told me that the new Kias are nothing like the old ones, and the warranty is very good. When I was deciding between a 2006 Accord and a new Kia, he said the warranty made the Kia a clear choice. I haven't had any first-hand experience with the safety features (knock on wood), but I am very happy with my super-cute little car. Plus, the stock stereo is pretty good.
posted by SamanthaK at 11:25 PM on June 22, 2010

I second davejay about the Versa. You can get a Versa very cheap, but if you have a bit more money to spend you can get some very cool added features too.
posted by litlnemo at 2:35 AM on June 23, 2010

Yes. I have a Versa. It is very cheap to run. I love it very much, it's also fun to drive and surprisingly spacious (large dog, baby, 2 adults, and lots of stuff will fit in it for a long weekend away).

One caveat-- the warranty is 3 yrs. I think Honda's is 4.

I paid 14,5 for mine in 2007.

I bought the model with ABS and side curtain airbags for additional safety.
posted by miss tea at 5:48 AM on June 23, 2010

The Kia Soul comes standard with ABS, ESC, and side-curtain airbags, FWIW. Not to mention Bluetooth, TPMS, and steering wheel-mounted media controls. Also, cruise control.
posted by InsanePenguin at 7:37 AM on June 23, 2010

Re: the crash tests, I understood that the cars are crashed into a barrier that is differently-massed depending on the car being tested. (Maybe the government tests do this, but the IIHS tests crash them all into the same-mass wall?) At any rate: even though a car like the Fit might have pretty good safety ratings, you still need to take into account that it's in a different and less-safe category than a mid-size car.
posted by LobsterMitten at 8:15 AM on June 23, 2010

If the Soul's a bit too funky looking for you, the Kia Forte, which replaces the old Rio, is in every way an upgrade over the Kias of Olde, in style and refinement, and cheaper and better equipped than both the Civic and Corolla. It gets 36mpg on the highway, and has an enormous Costco-friendly trunk. Also, 10 year powertrain warranty, and Kia also offers an extended warranty option that gives you a 10-year transferable bumper-to-bumper warranty if you plan on keeping the car for a while.
posted by Slap*Happy at 8:37 AM on June 23, 2010

Re: the crash tests, I understood that the cars are crashed into a barrier that is differently-massed depending on the car being tested.

That's not the case as far as I know, and in any event the variable that matters is the speed of the car (and I suppose the deformability of the barrier), and not its size, so long as it's big enough that any car can crash 40% of its front into it.
posted by Dasein at 9:20 AM on June 23, 2010

It looks like I was thinking of the IIHS front-offset tests, where a small car is crashed into a smaller barrier and a large car is crashed into a large barrier.

At any rate, if you are interested in how to interpret the safety ratings, it's worth looking at Consumer Reports' explanation of how the IIHS and NHTSA crash tests differ, why it matters, and how to use safety rating info. Here are a few excerpts, but it's worth reading their fuller explanation which is nice and clear:
NHTSA's front-crash test accelerates a car straight into a rigid barrier at 35 mph, with the entire width of a vehicle's front end hitting the barrier. [...]NHTSA's side-impact test simulates a vehicle struck on the left side by a 3,015-pound car traveling at 38.5 mph. [...]

[The IIHS front-crash test] simulates what would happen if two cars of the same weight and type crashed head-on, left headlight to left headlight. The impact speed is 40 mph instead of 35 mph, the barrier is deformable rather than rigid, and only the left front of the car hits the barrier.[...]The [side-crash] test uses a heavier striking barrier at 3,300 pounds, compared with NHTSA's at 3,015 pounds. Further, the IIHS barrier strikes higher up on the tested vehicle to simulate a car being hit on the side at 90 degrees by a typical-height SUV or truck. [The side-crash test also uses smaller crash dummies than the NHTSA test, simulating the effect on a female driver or child passenger] [...]

Since the front-crash tests performed by NHTSA and IIHS simulate a collision between two vehicles of the same weight and height, the scores don't apply to crashes between mismatched vehicles. [that is, a small car vs a larger car...] Side-impact tests apply more broadly than front-crash results do. Since the striking vehicle is the same within all the NHTSA tests and within all the IIHS tests, the results apply across all classes. In other words, a Good side crash score for a small car is the same as a Good for a large car.
posted by LobsterMitten at 1:34 PM on June 23, 2010

Seconding the Nissan Cube! I've driven mine since September, and love it. Airbags all over, good gas mileage (I average 25mpg doing a lot of short trips, but I've averaged over 30 when doing mostly highway driving), and just plain fun. Mine was $20,000 (in NJ) but it's fairly loaded - upgraded sound system, Bluetooth, satellite radio, fancy carpets and tires, and shag carpeting on my dash. Be warned that if you're shy or don't enjoy random questions from strangers, this is not the car for you. I get asked about it a lot because it is definitely quirky looking.
posted by booksherpa at 1:53 PM on June 23, 2010

You may be interested in this article on the new Sonata.
posted by Dasein at 4:37 PM on June 30, 2010

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