Vehicle Safety and Performance

The good news about shopping for a safe car is that you don’t need to think in terms of price-boosting extras. According to National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) statistics, many effective safety features are now standard on vehicles sold in the United States.

Safety Belt Systems. Safety belt systems equipped with energy management features and pre-tensioners save lives. During impact, features such as load limiters built into the shoulder belt and tear stitching in the webbing allow safety belts to yield. Pre-tensioners take up the slack, restraining the driver from hitting the dashboard or windshield. Pre–tensioners and energy management safety belts also prevent kinetic energy from being concentrated on your chest.

Rear center seat lap and shoulder belts, although not required, are an excellent idea for a family car. Of course, safety belts must be snugly adjusted to protect you.

Air Bags. Driver and front passenger airbags have been standard equipment since 1999. Though not required by law, side air bags are desirable because they provide additional protection to the chest and head in the event a car is hit from the side.

Head Restraints. Many cars feature restraints that limit head movement and offer protection from whiplash in a rear-impact crash. The rear head restraint should be adjusted so it stands between the top of your ears and top of your head and is as close to your head as possible.

Electronic Stability Control. A system that provides selective wheel braking to improve vehicle handling and help drivers regain control in certain extreme circumstances. ESC employs components of the anti-lock braking system and is required on all passenger vehicles starting with the 2012 model year. Systems on SUVs generally also provide incorporate Rollover Mitigation.

Anti-lock braking system (ABS): System that prevents wheel lock-up by automatically regulating the brakes. ABS can decrease braking distances on slippery pavement, prevent skidding and provide greater control during sudden stops.

Daytime Running Lights (DRL): Front lighting designed to operate during daylight hours to improve a vehicle’s visibility to other drivers. DRLs may be normal-intensity headlights, reduced-intensity headlights or separate lighting assemblies that may include LED arrays.

Backup Cameras: These cameras are designed to assist the driver to see what’s directly behind them, as well as any objects that may be moving into your intended patch. Backup cameras will become mandatory on all passenger cars by 2018.

Want to conduct an in-depth safety review of a specific make and model? The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration or Insurance Institute for Highway Safety can help.

Advanced Driver Assistance Systems (ADAS). A variety of safety-related systems that monitor vehicle performance and the surrounding environment. ADAS provide a variety of driver alerts when potentially hazardous conditions exist, and some (such as automated emergency braking) can take corrective action when the driver fails to respond appropriately to a dangerous situation.

Blind spot monitoring. An ADAS system that monitors the driver’s blind spots at the rear quarters of the car and provides visual, audible and/or tactile alerts when a vehicle is present in them.

Automatic emergency braking. A system that automatically applies the brakes to prevent or mitigate a collision when the car is approaching another vehicle or object at too high a rate of speed.

Adaptive cruise control. An advanced cruise control system that maintains a preset distance or time interval from the vehicle ahead by automatically controlling the brakes and throttle.

Lane departure warning. An ADAS system that monitors lane markings and provides the driver with visual, audible and/or tactile alerts if their car begins to leave its lane and the turn signal is not on.

Lane keeping assist. An ADAS system that automatically applies braking and/or steering inputs to help keep a vehicle in its lane when the turn signal is not on.

Before You Drive. Start your test drive online. You’ll find vehicle profiles with performance data and information on price, dealer markup, overall dependability and resale value.

Walk around the car. Are its lines pleasing? Is it the right size for your family’s needs? Check the quality of the assembly, tightness of body panel alignment, paint and chrome. Open and close the tailgate or trunk and doors. Does it sound solid and well made? Will the design allow for easy loading of luggage, sporting goods and groceries?

Be a Backseat (Test) Driver. Consider asking the salesperson to drive, so you can focus on the ride without the distraction of driving. You’re more likely to notice noise and overall comfort.

Find Your Fit. Check leg room and visibility. How easy is it to adjust the seats? Are the controls easy to read and use? Try all of the accessories and options, such as air conditioning, the sound system and navigation aids.

On the Road. Drive the exact model and trim grade of the car you want to purchase. Pick your own route for the test drive. If possible, pick a route that mirrors your daily driving routine. Also test the car’s ride quality and handling on different road surfaces: city streets, hills, freeways and winding roads.

Power. Test the engine’s responsiveness in real-world conditions. Is there a smooth and constant delivery of power? Try merging onto the highway, passing, and driving in stop-and-go traffic. Run the air conditioner to see if it drains power.

Transmission. Look for smoothness and ease of operation. Listen for hesitation or straining.

Handling. Check steering responsiveness. Safely practice long turns, sharp turns, sudden swerves and gradual lane changes.

Brakes. Your life could depend on your brakes, so carefully put them to the test. Brake both softly and decisively to gain an accurate idea of the car’s stopping distance.

Noise Level. At various speeds, listen for excessive engine, road and wind noise. Check for squeaks and rattles from the interior and bodywork. Listen with the windows open and closed.

Parking. Parallel park to discover any blind spots or potential difficulty in identifying the corners of the car.

A lot has changed in navigational and infotainment options in recent years. Carefully consider what you think you’ll need and like before buying.

In-Car Navigation Systems – For drivers who frequently venture into unfamiliar territory, these factory-installed navigation systems can be quite valuable. Also be aware of the added costs to update the software/mapping.

Telematics – These systems also use GPS technology to locate your car when you call a centralized service center. You pay a fee to subscribe to the service. When you call, the center can guide you to a destination, locate your vehicle and send emergency service or help you in some other way, such as making hotel reservations or pointing you toward the closest gas station. Armed with this knowledge, telematics providers can proactively arrange for emergency service quickly or get directions any time of the day or night which enhances your safety. A system in the car also can lock or unlock your car by remote control or trace your vehicle if it’s stolen.

Some of the same features offered by those integrated into a vehicle, can also be achieved through a smartphone, and an OBDII (On-Board Diagnostics) dongle. The dongle plugs into the OBDII port, which is connected to your vehicle’s computer(s) and reads various systems. One example of an aftermarket system is that it can provide a diagnostic check, as well as give you an indication on the severity of a problem if your check engine light is illuminated.

Air Conditioning – Now almost universally installed at the factory, air conditioning offers several advantages besides the obvious comfort it affords on hot days. Air-conditioned cars often defog windows much more quickly than cars equipped only with a heater and defroster. Air conditioning also lets a driver keep all the windows closed, for safety and to reduce noise, which can cause fatigue. Opening windows on the highway can reduce fuel efficiency as much as using the air conditioning, if not more so, because open windows increase aerodynamic drag.

Upgraded Seating Packages – Try them for comfort and visibility before you buy. You may find the more expensive seating is less comfortable, affords less head restraint protection or interferes with your visibility. Then again, you may have problems with standard seating and find the optional interior setup preferable.

Leather Upholstery – To many people, leather conveys a sense of luxury. Depending on the tanning process, the aroma also can be appealing. Leather does tend to be initially cold in the winter and hot in the summer. However, it allows some breathing for comfort, which vinyl does not, and generally wears well with minimal care.

Heated/Air-conditioned Seats – For relatively quick cold-weather comfort, electrically heated seats can be wonderful. Some cars also offer an electrically heated steering wheel, which generally warm faster than heated seats or the heater itself and can make driving a cold car without gloves much more comfortable. Costs vary widely.

Power Accessories – Power windows, mirrors, locks and power seats are increasingly popular. Power mirrors make proper adjustment of the outside mirrors quite easy, which is a safety factor. Power locks also can be considered a safety feature, since they let a lone driver lock all the doors with the push of a button. Power locks often are combined with keyless entry, another convenience. Some people need a power seat—which frequently allows a wider range of adjustment than a manual seat—to establish proper sight lines or adequate comfort. While these accessories often are relatively inexpensive when a car is new, repairs can be costly.

Upgraded Sound, Infotainment, and Video Entertainment Systems – There are many different options (Bluetooth, USB, Video Screens, etc.) to choose from. Be guided by your needs and the associated costs. Just be sure to sample the product before you buy. More expensive systems are not always better.

Cruise Control – This feature reduces physical effort and prevents right-leg cramps on long trips. Cruise control also keeps your speed down—a safety factor—and can lead to more fuel-efficient operation. When improperly used in heavy traffic, on curvy secondary roads or when there’s limited traction, it can be a hazard.

Sunroof – Three types of sunroofs offer a breath of fresh air. One slides back inside the car, effectively reducing headroom. Others slide back outside the car, taking a far smaller toll on interior room and comfort. The least expensive type manually pops open or can be removed from the outside. However, you can’t close it quickly when the rain starts. All three styles are expensive to buy and repair, although fixes are seldom needed. Leakage is generally not a problem if drain tubes are kept clear.

Steering Wheel Controls – With controls on the steering wheel, you can adjust audio and other settings, but drivers will need to guard against becoming distracted without taking your hands from the wheel or your eyes from the road.

Trip Computers – These can provide useful information, such as average or instantaneous fuel consumption.

Engines – In the past, engine choices were limited to number of cylinders and overall displacement measured in cubic inches. Today, a more fundamental option is configuration of the overall powertrain. Do you want a car powered by an internal combustion engine, or would you prefer one of the many variations of electric vehicles?

In a traditional configuration, the standard engine is generally more than sufficient for most buyers. If you want more power, however, it is often available at extra cost, and you may have to buy a higher trim level model to get it. Trucks often offer a potentially bewildering selection of powertrains to choose from. A knowledgeable salesperson can be invaluable in helping you make an informed choice.

Engines are generally smaller than in the past for better fuel economy, but thanks to technological advances they provide equal or better performance. Manufacturers frequently use downsized engines with turbochargers that boost power when necessary, which reduces overall fuel consumption. However, turbocharged engines often require use of premium gasoline and are not always well suited to trailer towing.

For maximum fuel efficiency and pulling power, a diesel engine might be worth considering. Modern automotive diesels are nothing like the noisy, smelly diesel engines of the past. Today, they meet the same emission requirements as gasoline powerplants, and electronic controls help provide smooth and quiet operation.

Transmissions – Most new cars are equipped with automatic transmissions, and engineers have reduced or eliminated the fuel economy penalty automatic vehicles once endured. Some newer automatic transmissions use continuously variable and dual-clutch designs, and shift characteristics often differ from those of traditional automatics. If you are contemplating a car with one of these gearboxes, make sure you are happy with how it operates.

Automatic transmissions offer anywhere from four to nine speeds, while manual transmissions can have four to seven speeds. More forward gears generally provide higher performance and better fuel economy. Automatic transmissions are generally more expensive to repair, although modern designs typically have a long service life. Properly driven, a manual transmission can last the life of the car, but an unskilled driver can quickly reduce a manual gearbox and its clutch to rubble. While not as expensive to repair as automatic transmissions, manual transmission repair costs are still significant.

Suspensions – Advances in technology have improved suspensions. The base suspension on most cars provides much better comfort and control than in the past. In addition, optional sport suspensions are available on many models. However, such packages usually cause a car to ride a bit more firmly and offer less compliance on rough roads.

For the best of both worlds, many highline vehicles offer electronically adjustable suspensions that allow the ride and handling balance to be altered with the twist of a knob. Some systems even adjust shock absorber damping in real-time as the road surface changes. Air suspension is offered on some luxury models, and auto-leveling is increasingly common on cars with high-intensity discharge headlights to maintain proper aim and avoid blinding drivers in oncoming cars.

When purchasing a car or truck that will be used for towing or hauling heavy loads, be sure to specify a heavy-duty suspension package that can safely support and control additional loads. On the other hand, if you are buying a truck primarily for light-duty use, standard suspension will provide a much more comfortable ride when the vehicle is unloaded.

Wheels and Tires – A majority of new cars are equipped with all-season tires that [meet the needs of most drivers. Some models offer performance tires as optional or standard equipment. This type of tire provides better traction and steering response, thanks to softer rubber, a wider tread and shorter sidewalls. However, performance tires ride more firmly, tend to follow road seams and imperfections and are poorly suited to use on ice and snow. A growing number of premium models now come with touring tires that strike a balance between all-season and performance designs.

Some cars are fitted with run-flat tires that eliminate the spare and allow the vehicle to be driven a limited distance when a tire deflates due to a puncture. Run-flat tires have very stiff sidewalls and tend to ride more roughly than conventional designs, although the newest models are much better than earlier versions.

Cars with run-flat tires aren’t the only ones without a spare tire today. Many automakers now substitute a sealant/inflator kit in place of a spare to save weight and increase fuel economy. AAA testing found these kits cannot be used in many situations and are costly to replace. Make sure the car you’re considering comes with a spare or can be fitted with one through the manufacturer or dealership.