Dear Tom and Ray:
Am I safer in a bigger, older car that doesn't handle particularly well and has no new safety features (i.e., my '92 Volvo 940 sedan), or a newer compact car with side-curtain air bags that handles well and performs well in crash tests (i.e., a VW Jetta)? Does young but small trump big but old? -- Ruby
RAY: So, you've got the hots for a new Jetta, huh, Ruby?
TOM: It's not an easy question to answer. There are a number of things that factor into a car's "safeness." Size is just one of them.
RAY: There's also design. Some cars are designed to better protect their occupants with crumple zones, passenger roll cages and reinforced door beams. Some cars add electronics, like dynamic stability control and anti-lock brakes. And then there are air bags: front, side, head and even knee bags.
TOM: And finally, there's active safety -- how well a car handles in emergency situations, to help you avoid an accident in the first place. So, size is an important factor, but it's only one factor.
RAY: In general, I'd have to say that newer cars tend to have more safety advantages than older cars. But your older Volvo might be an exception to this rule. Despite its lack of some of the modern electronics and additional air bags, it is a large car and was extremely well-designed to survive an accident. If you were comparing a '92 Chevy Lumina with a newer car, I'd give the nod to the newer car for safety. But the Volvos were pretty good, even back then.
TOM: So, it's a tough call, Ruby. We certainly would like to see you with ABS, as many air bags as a manufacturer will give you and even dynamic stability control, if you can get it. But you really have to look up the crash-test ratings of the particular car you're considering, because the results can differ dramatically -- even with similar-size cars with identical equipment. You can link to the ratings from our Web site, www.cartalk.com.
RAY: In your case, in a choice between a new Jetta and a '92 Volvo, it's hard to make the call purely in terms of safety, Ruby. So, I think you have to put aside the safety issue and make your decision based on other criteria. Like how much better you're going to look in that new Jetta, for instance. Good luck.