Twenty-five years ago, purchasing a safe car meant buying a land yacht. Steel, and lots of it, was the best way to protect a family from harm.
That belief continued into the '90s as parents piled children into SUVs so large that the front and rear seats were in different time zones.
But it's time to rethink what makes a vehicle safe. Cumbersome school-bus-size vehicles aren't necessary for protection anymore, as sophisticated electronics keep drivers in control and once-pricey warning systems and multiple airbags are becoming affordable.
Significant mass might be preferred, but small cars have become much safer, according to tests performed by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Uncle Sam runs cars through a 35-mph frontal collision, a combined 38.5-mph side-impact test and 20-mph side pole crash, plus a rollover resistance test.
Only two vehicles have received five stars (the highest rating) in all tests: the 2012 Chevrolet Camaro and the 2012 Volvo S60. Neither is particularly large. And consider that the subcompact Chevy Sonic scores a lofty 5/5/4 — the same as the large Chrysler 300.
How is this possible? Automobile structures are designed on advanced computer systems, allowing engineers to perform hundreds of virtual impacts before a single piece of metal is stamped out. And ultra-high-strength steel is used in critical areas to protect occupants, much like a racing car's roll cage.
No hot air
Airbags have become more sophisticated, with dual-depth and dual-stage units that inflate differently depending on seat position, crash severity and seat-belt use. In short, they react more appropriately to protect better.
Airbags are popping up in new places, too. Knee units reduce leg injuries. General Motors is installing an airbag between the two front seats on 2013 Acadia, Enclave and Traverse crossovers. During a side impact, it secures occupants and prevents them from banging into each other.
The diminutive Scion iQ has 11 airbags, including units in the front-seat cushion bottom to position people for an optimal landing against the front bags. It also has the first rear-window airbag.
New technologies surrounding vehicle handling can help people drive out of trouble and avoid crashes. The government now requires electronic stability control on all new cars.
Wheel and yaw sensors communicate with the steering wheel to detect whether the car is following its intended path. If not, the computer brakes only specific wheels to guide the car back on course.
Infiniti integrates that technology with lane-departure and blind-spot warnings. When cameras and sensors determine that you are drifting across the center line or moving into an occupied lane, the vehicle gently applies the brakes on one side of the car to nudge it back.
Volvo's City Safety system "sees" other cars and pedestrians and stops the car automatically if it senses that the driver isn't paying attention. According to Insurance Institute for Highway Safety data, collision losses for Volvo's XC60 — which uses the system — are 31 percent lower than all other midsize luxury SUVs.
GMC has introduced a $295 lane-departure-warning and forward-collision system for its midsize Terrain crossover. The single-camera system alerts drivers if they drift out of their lane without signaling and warns them when they are approaching traffic rapidly.
Do your part
Drivers should never use cellphones for talking or texting. Always use seat belts. Keep children in the back seat, belted into appropriate safety chairs. Don't be distracted by the stereo or navigation systems, and don't allow pets on anyone's lap.
High-strength steel and high-tech silicon are reassuring, but old-school common sense can be even more valuable.