Subcompact Car: Ford Fiesta
Historically, smaller cars have some of the highest injury and fatality rates. Yet today, even the tiniest cars are designed to protect their human cargo remarkably well. The Ford Fiesta is the new benchmark, the only minicar to earn an IIHS Top Safety Pick. It offers the most standard airbags in its segment, including a driver's knee bag and side-curtain inflators. In addition, about 55 percent of the Fiesta's body is made from high-strength or ultrahigh-strength steel, including the front roof pillars. This tough but lightweight material helped the Fiesta pass new roof-safety standards, yet still allows a slim pillar for clear outward views.
Small Car: Honda Civic
America's best-selling compact car has brought peace of mind — not just on safety, but on reliability and resale value — to more than 200,000 buyers so far this year. The Civic is notable for Honda's signature Advanced Compatibility Engineering body structure. It's designed to protect not only occupants but pedestrians, with components such as a hood structure and windshield wipers that deform more easily on impact to lessen pedestrian injuries. For a budget car, this Honda offers a slew of standard safety features, including anti-lock brakes with electronic brake-force distribution for sure-footed control in panic stops.
Small SUV: Subaru Forester
For SUVs, a low center of gravity, carlike handling and all-wheel drive help keep the car on the road and minimize chances of a deadly rollover. More wagon than traditional SUV, the Subaru Forester is outstanding in those regards. While most competitors charge extra for AWD, the Subaru's sophisticated system is standard, and it's linked with electronic stability control for superior all-weather safety. And the Forester's Ring-Shaped Reinforcement Frame safety structure earns top scores from both NHTSA and the IIHS.
Family Sedan: Hyundai Sonata
The Hyundai Sonata is one of only two 2011 models so far (30 have been tested) to earn an overall five-star rating from the IIHS. "From stability and handling to crash results, it's an impressive package," says Mike Quincy, Consumer Reports' automotive specialist. The Sonata is equipped with six standard airbags, including side curtains both front and rear. Anti-lock brakes with brake assist and electronic brake-force distribution are also standard — along with electronic stability control, a safety feature that NHTSA reports has resulted in 35 percent fewer single-vehicle crashes and 30 percent fewer single-vehicle fatalities in passenger cars.
Midsize Crossover: Volvo XC60
No list of safe cars would be complete without a Volvo. Handsome, spacious and notably smooth-handling, the XC60 is equipped with a jaw-dropping list of safety features. At around-town speeds of 20 mph or less, Volvo's City Safety system uses a laser to detect traffic ahead and automatically brakes to prevent fender benders. At higher speeds, a collision-warning system warns drivers if it senses a risk of collision, and can automatically slow or stop the vehicle. Add to that standard all-wheel drive, rollover sensors, hill-descent control and both blind-spot and lane-departure warnings, and you have a safety cocoon on wheels.
Large Car: Buick LaCrosse
Midsize and larger sedans consistently post among the lowest fatality and injury rates of any car or truck segment, one reason why safety experts urge parents to consider putting teenagers or college students behind the wheel of a big sedan, not a tiny compact. The Buick LaCrosse incorporates GM's excellent Stabilitrak stability control system, along with the safety backup of the OnStar telematics system. A heads-up display lets the driver keep his eyes on the road, adaptive headlamps swivel up to 15 degrees to peer around curves at night, and a radar-based system alerts drivers when a car is lurking in blind spots.
Luxury Car: BMW 5-Series
Along with the Hyundai Sonata, the BMW 5-Series aced the tough new NHTSA crash tests. The BMW also brings the latest cutting-edge safety advances: adaptive cruise control, lane-departure and blind-spot warnings, and the first night-vision system that detects pedestrians and highlights them on-screen in the navigation display. The BMW's brilliant agility and braking can also bail drivers out of trouble. If a crash should happen, its Assist System, developed jointly with the William Lehman Trauma Center, not only sends automatic emergency notification, but can transmit data to alert emergency responders to the likelihood of severe injury.
Minivan: Toyota Sienna
The all-new 2011 Sienna is a huge improvement over its predecessor, especially in the safety department. An optional radar-based pre-collision system scans the road and preps the brakes for maximum stopping power if it senses a potential impact. Toyota's Vehicle Dynamics Integrated Management system coordinates engine, brakes and steering to keep the car safely on course, even before wheels begin to slip. Other technological upgrades include the industry's first panoramic rear camera with a full 180-degree view, and Toyota's new Safety Connect telematics system with automatic collision notification.
Sport-Utility Vehicle: Jeep Grand Cherokee
Beneath its handsome new skin, the redesigned Jeep Grand Cherokee shares its rock-solid chassis with the far pricier Mercedes-Benz ML. This IIHS Top Pick boasts roughly 45 safety and security features, including stability control with electronic roll mitigation; a 4-wheel anti-lock braking system with rough-road detection; full-length side curtain airbags, side thorax airbags and active head restraints; and a trailer-sway control. Plus, the available 4-wheel-drive systems let the Jeep waltz through rain, deep snow or mud that would stymie lesser vehicles.
Station Wagon: Volkswagen Jetta SportWagen
The Volkswagen Jetta SportWagen earns our nod because it combines honest utility and affordability with the kind of sporty European handling that can help drivers stop or steer around potential trouble. "Not only does the Jetta do well in our dynamic handling tests, but it's got great visibility and crash scores," Quincy says. That performance begins with a 4-wheel independent suspension and 4-wheel anti-lock brakes that include vented front rotors for trusty stopping power. Electronic stability control is standard for the 2011 model, while an electronic differential lock controls wheel spin in low-traction situations.