If you were to compile a list the five safest 2011 model year vehicles, which would they be? Before you start thinking, know that even some of the nation's best-regarded auto experts recoil at taking on that task.
That's because there are so many variables impacting safety. Is the vehicle under consideration safe in a front-impact crash? How about a rear crash? Is it strong or vulnerable from the side? What about in a rollover situation?
Changes in vehicle crash safety ratings
Compounding the difficulty are recent changes in how the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) rates vehicle crash safety, says Karl Brauer, chief analyst at Santa Monica-based Edmunds.com.
Over time, carmakers closely studied NHTSA's former crash-test standards and built in safety features that enabled their vehicles to pass with flying colors, Brauer says.
That created a problem - too many vehicles were receiving top ratings.
In response, the NHTSA has moved to loftier standards. That means you can't assume cars performing well on 2009 tests will do well under the glare of new, more rigorous testing, Brauer says.
In addition, it will be a long time before all vehicles on the market are tested. NHTSA tests only about 30 cars annually, representing just 10 percent of the vehicle market, Brauer adds. In short, it's exceptionally hard to get a read on the top five safest cars for 2011.
Safety and auto insurance rates
But it is possible to highlight a handful of vehicles with sci-fi-like advanced safety features that greatly enhance safety in certain driving situations. While car insurance companies don't use crash test results as a factor in your auto insurance quote, vehicles with low claims histories do garner better car insurance rates.
2011 Acura RL. The RL uses a "collision mitigation braking system" (CMBS) that incorporates audio, visual and tactile signals to read the road ahead. It alerts you to the potential of collision and pre-tensions front seatbelts to help reduce impact force on front-seat occupants, says Joe Wiesenfelder, senior editor of Chicago-based Cars.com.
"If you're closing in too quickly on another car, it will first warn you, then can apply brakes and finally stop the vehicle if need be," he says. He adds that Acura was "the first to do this, and they never get credit for it."
2011 Ford Explorer (pictured). Some estimates fix the number of U.S. crashes occurring on cloverleaf ramps and other curves at 50,000 annually. If a 2011 Ford Explorer enters a curve too quickly, says Brauer, a feature called curve control that will "sense if the vehicle is going off the roadway and will slow the appropriate wheels to pull it back on the road." The Explorer also has optional inflatable seatbelts in the second row.
2011 Mercedes-Benz CL-Class. Two new safety features that draw from advanced radar, camera and sensor technology have been added to 2011 models of Mercedes' flagship CL-Class coupes, Wiesenfelder says.
The 2011 CL-Class unveils "active lane keeping assist" and "active blind spot assist." Both use corrective braking to help drivers avoid potential crashes.
Active lane keeping assist employs a windshield camera to ensure the vehicle doesn't drift out of its lane. If it does, the system activates steering wheel vibrations, simulating the sound heard when you drive over rumble strips. When you travel over solid lines, the system automatically brakes the opposite side wheels, creating a yaw effect that helps you stay in your lane.
Active blind spot assist uses close-range radar sensors to help drivers avoid collisions. The presence of a vehicle in your blind spot on either side illuminates a red warning triangle on the corresponding side-view mirror. If you fail to notice and activate your turn indicator, the light and an audible warning activates. If you insist on turning into that lane anyway, the system initiates corrective braking intervention, touching off a yaw movement that helps correct your vehicle's path.
2011 Volvo XC60. The brand synonymous with safety is giving its popular XC60 crossover the "pedestrian detection system" unveiled earlier on its S60 and V60 models.
"It's a combination of sensors and engine controls that allows the vehicle to stop itself if the driver doesn't apply brakes at low speeds," Brauer says. "It can sense if there's a pedestrian, another car or a wall in your vehicle's path, and stop the vehicle if you're going below 19 and your foot is not on the brake."
Closing in on low car insurance rates
Car insurance rates are calculated based on a vehicle's "loss history." If the safety features in these vehicles do ultimately reduce accidents (and claims), all drivers of the vehicles will benefit with low auto insurance rates.