How bad is a one-star NHTSA crash rating, really?
November 6, 2017 4:49 PM   Subscribe

I have a chance to get a good deal (from a friend) on a 1990 Hyundai Elantra GLS. It's in great condition shape, in my price range, with only 80,000 miles. But my wife is concerned about driving our young kids in it since it got a one-star rating from the NHTSA in side impacts, and three stars in other categories.

I know the ratings estimate the chances of serious injury.

Most cars today seem to get five stars in almost everything. But is this apples and oranges, like comparing to the cars our parents drove us around in, without seatbelts, etc? After all, it did pass the NHTSA tests, right?

Or is this just purely a personal judgement call on how much risk we're willing to accept?
posted by gottabefunky to Technology (15 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
A circa-1990 one-star rating is... really not great, particularly considering that standards were tightened in 2011. So your candidate car got its one-star rating under the considerably-less-informed-by-research 'cars our parents drove us around in' standards. I'm not even sure it would get a star under current ratings -- there's no way to convert old ratings into new, because the criteria have changed, but they've changed for the stricter, so it's not apples-to-oranges so much as apples-to-the-wild-pre-domestication-ancestors-of-apples. Passenger protection has improved a lot in recent decades, which is why so many newer cars get five-star ratings.

Some of the major changes relate to both side-impact injury *and* to child safety in cars (they started using kid-scale crash dummies), so your wife definitely has a point here.
posted by halation at 5:04 PM on November 6, 2017 [8 favorites]

The 1990 standard is nothing like the current ones. It's a death trap. You can see the difference in this crash test, which is between the "same" car but one built to roughly 1990s safety standards. Now, if you don't drive much or don't drive on the freeway, it's less of an issue.
posted by wnissen at 5:05 PM on November 6, 2017 [5 favorites]

is this just purely a personal judgement call on how much risk we're willing to accept?

Absolutely. But you need to understand the risks. Driving in any car is a risk, and driving in an older car is a greater risk. Driving a car that didn't perform well in crash tests is a greater risk again. But driving in an older car that performed badly in older crash tests even at the time? That's.... quite risky. Especially if it was a shitbox a quarter of a century ago.

It's an old car. It wasn't a very good car anyway, but add 27 years old and it is not even as safe as it's rating when it was new (80,000 miles is a lot of fatigue and vibration that generally makes components weaker). So, it's basically a not very safe at all shitbox. Plus, you linked to a 2000 year crash test. So if the car is actually a 2000? It's a slightly better shitbox, but still a shitbox. What's your budget?

HOWEVER, if an 80k example of a not very good car is only in your budget at 27 years old, then it sounds like you may be short on options. Because that car can't be worth much. In fact, if you're paying much more than $500 for it, you're getting ripped off. So as far as $500 options for cars go... I'm not sure you have much choice in safety, you are better off looking for reliable and well maintained.

I can't help but feel something is missing here - did you get the age of the car wrong? Because I've never heard someone refer to a $500 shit box as 'being in budget'. PLus you linked to a 2000 crash test spec.
posted by Brockles at 5:19 PM on November 6, 2017 [17 favorites]

1990 is the car my parents drove me around in, and I'm almost 40. That's a 27 year old car. I wouldn't put kids in that, no way, and I'm one of those people who look longingly back at the days me and my brother rode around in the back of my dad's pickup. My first car was a 1986 Hyundai Pony (the predecessor to the Elantra I think) and that thing was a death trap, but my 16 year old self couldn't have cared less. My 39 year old self... yikes. So yes, i do think it is as you said, a personal judgement call on how much risk we're willing to accept.
posted by cgg at 5:20 PM on November 6, 2017 [2 favorites]

I spent 10 years working in risk. Risk is the probability of something bad happening, minus the things that can keep both those bad things from happening and mitigating the effects of those bad things, times how bad a bad thing happening can turn out. So:

1. How frequent is a car accident? = Not that high, but remarkably higher than you'd think.
2. Things that keep bad things from happening? = Impact panels, seat belts, air bags, and basically all the great engineering feats that have happened in the past 15-20 years.
3. Worst thing that can happen in an accident? = You and/or your loved ones being injured/killed.

In the most simplistic way possible, the risk is mitigated in the second step (you have no input in the first or third steps). It's up to you, but driving in a car with a sub-par record of safety mitigation is something I don't think I'd be comfortable with.
posted by General Malaise at 6:07 PM on November 6, 2017 [3 favorites]

Was the Elantra even sold in the US in 1990?
posted by saladin at 6:10 PM on November 6, 2017

I'm not sure any 30 year old car would be safe to drive small children around in. But a Hyundai? What's the deal you're getting on this? Trading him two candy bars and some spare change? I get that it only has 80k miles, but it's a 1990 model. You should be able to find much better cars for under $500. There's no way I'd put my kid in that car.
posted by kevinbelt at 6:33 PM on November 6, 2017 [14 favorites]

Airbags weren’t mandatory on cars in the US in 1990. I doubt an Elantra from that year would have them.
posted by zsazsa at 6:39 PM on November 6, 2017 [2 favorites]

Walk away from this.
posted by Thorzdad at 6:59 PM on November 6, 2017 [3 favorites]

If your kids are still in car seats you may want to look into whether they can be appropriately and safely installed. I’m positive the car would need retrofitting of some sort just from a cursory google search of “legality of car seats in older vehicles.” Airbags are also another consideration. I find it odd (to say the least) that you would consider putting your children in what is obviously an unsafe situation.
posted by tatiana wishbone at 7:02 PM on November 6, 2017

Since everyone is essentially telling you this is an insane death trap, here's a contrasting opinion:

It used to be that three-star ratings were totally marketable in the USA, it was seen as better than average, and compleately reasonable. Now, however, this rating is met with scorn. What changed since then is left as an exercise for the reader.

This is also why gas mileage hasn't increased much since the 90s: all the gains they may make in engine efficiency are offset by greater and greater demands on safety, entertainment and convenience, all of which add considerable weight. Some people seem to want a car that will let them SAFELY DRIVE OFF A CLIFF, and I'm sure you could do precisely that in a 2018 Volvo XC90 that costs $60k for 'modest' basic equipment.

But maybe you don't have that kind of money. I sure don't. You gotta do you. The others are not exactly wrong, but maybe they have different finances or driving records or risk aversions.

From my perspective, this care is is not crazy, not a death trap, and in fact completely reasonable for lots of people.

The number one way to avoid injury on the road is to avoid accidents; features that protect against damage in case of collision are secondary, and at least an order of magnitude smaller in terms of likelihood of saving you (the vast majority of miles and days you drive have no collisions). Defensive driving is the name of the game, and your driving habits and use cases matter a lot here. I'd say this is not weird if you drive a few thousand miles a year, all in town, often alone. I'd say this is a bit over the line if you drive 25k+ miles per year, often highway, often with kid.

(Full disclosure: I bought my first new car ever to make my life with a new baby easier, and in part because I had some cash burning a hole in my pocket. Up until this year, I never paid more than $1500 for a car, and rarely drove one that was under 15-20 years old. I also never drove much, and still don't drive much, especially with they kid. Honestly if I didn't live in the state with the most highway fatalities per year in the USA, with the most bullshit unsafe road infrastructure, I probably still would drive older cheaper cars. )
posted by SaltySalticid at 7:11 PM on November 6, 2017 [2 favorites]

"completely reasonable for lots of people."

Agree, but those people don't include parents of small children. I drove a 96 Mazda until last year, but my daughter has never and will never see the inside of that car.

It's like a studio apartment. I lived in one in college, and I loved it. One of my favorite places I've ever lived. But not a good place to live with a child.
posted by kevinbelt at 7:30 PM on November 6, 2017 [5 favorites]

Response by poster: Ah crap, I meant a 2000 Hyundai. My bad.
posted by gottabefunky at 8:33 PM on November 6, 2017

My parents have a 2001 Hyundai Elantra. I would not put my kids in it. It's also really rusty underneath.
posted by Ostara at 9:30 PM on November 6, 2017 [3 favorites]

A 2000 Elantra is worth $1500. It's still a shitbox at best.

Concur. At best it's a 'crapbox'. Again, though, if your budget is sub $1500, then you can't really make too many judgments on safety, because it sounds like you are out of the price range where that can be much of a factor. What you really need at that price is something reliable that won't cost much to run. A hyundai may be that car as long as it doesn't break, but I suspect that when things start failing, that something domestic would be cheaper to keep on the road in the medium to long term.

Is it a safe car? Well. Primary safety (the ability to avoid an accident in the first place with brakes and handling) on those isn't horrific (far better than a Jeep, or a pickup truck of similar age) so it is ahead in that respect. It's not as safe a car as others in an impact(secondary safety), but that's only part of the story. Being a better driver and having a car that handles and stops better and with good visibility massively reduces your chances of being in an impact anyway.

So, if your budget is $1500, then I'd consider it if it truly has been well maintained. Because reliability and condition of tyres, brakes and shocks are a much bigger factor in avoiding an accident than how the car behaves when it is getting hit. If your budget is higher than $1,500 then the person selling their 'low mileage' Hyundai is not doing you a favour and has a lofty idea of how much their car is worth.

But, as I said above, it is a judgment call on what you consider acceptable risk. Also, factored into that is what is realistic. If you have $1500 and this is the best maintained car, of known provenance, that is reliable and gets you from A to B and you can afford the fuel costs? Then it is likely one of your better options. Because $1500 doesn't buy you much. Crucially factored into there is that a 2000-2005 car with a higher crash rating but is rusty and has worn shocks would be a less safe car (both primary and secondary) than the well maintained and not rusty Hyundai. The new crash ratings are only relevant if the car is still new. Degradation of structure and capability is real and significant.
posted by Brockles at 7:49 AM on November 7, 2017

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