What You Need to Know About Luxury Cars and Safety

We avoid deeming one vehicle "safer" than another because many factors contribute to a vehicle's overall safety, and they aren't all easily quantified. That said, we're comfortable calling the luxury vehicle category one of the safest in the industry.

Real-world safety data doesn't separate the vehicle from the type of driver — and luxury drivers tend to be more careful than most — but crash tests and other factors reflect that the luxury designation itself does raise the crashworthiness of a vehicle, as explained below.

Best of the Best: Top Crash-Test Scores

As a class, luxury vehicles have historically had the best crash-test ratings, though the gap has been narrowing for one class, midsize cars.

At the end of the 2011 model year, of the 15 midsize luxury SUVs rated by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, 13 earned Good ratings in frontal, side-impact and rear crashes. The remaining two haven't been tested for side impact. One has an Acceptable score for rear impact, which disqualifies it, but the other rated Good, so a pending side-impact test could make the class 14 for 15.

Compare this with the midsize nonluxury SUV class, which has 25 entries, some of which represent multiple models. All of these models have been subjected to the three tests, and 18 made the grade, a lower percentage (72 percent versus the luxury models' 87 percent).

It's a similar story for cars. Seventeen large luxury cars have been tested, and 12 scored Good in the main tests (71 percent). Of the nine nonluxury cars tested, five made the cut (56 percent).

It's in the midsize car class where the difference is almost nil. Of 13 midsize luxury car models subjected to the three main crash tests, nine scored Good in all of them (69 percent). Among midsize nonluxury cars, 21 have been tested for frontal, side and rear impact. Fourteen made the cut (67 percent).
Refer to Interpreting Crash Tests and Safety Ratings for more details.

Another advantage that nearly all luxury vehicles have enjoyed for many years is the inclusion of antilock brakes and electronic stability systems as standard equipment. Though the federal government now mandates that all vehicles include the features starting in the 2012 model year, the luxury class already had it covered. Known by innumerable names, most of which include the word "stability," computer-based electronic stability systems brake individual wheels and control the throttle to keep the vehicle on its intended path in low-traction situations. It's especially valuable in SUVs, as it can prevent conditions that lead to rollovers. Back to top

Features to Look For

Airbags aplenty: A full set of airbags adds to the luxury category's inherent value and plays an important role in its excellent crash-test ratings. Frontal airbags are required on all cars; the side-impact variety is not, but almost all luxury models include them for the front seats, at least in the form of torso-protection bags. (Torso protection for rear seats is less common, in part due to concern over child safety.) Side curtain airbags, which cover the side windows and protect the heads of front and backseat occupants, are increasingly included as standard equipment. They're equally important in low-slung cars for protection against taller trucks, and in SUVs for protection in a rollover (make sure the SUV's curtains are designed to deploy in a rollover, because not all of them are). In vehicles with three rows of seats, most models employ curtains that protect all three rows, but make sure this is the case before deciding on a luxury SUV.

Head restraints: Not simply "headrests" for occupant comfort, head restraints are intended to protect against whiplash injuries, particularly in a rear-end collision. Buyers should look for head restraints at every seating position and make sure the restraints extend high enough for the tallest likely occupant and rest, or can be adjusted, close to the head. Better still, look for active head restraints that move forward in a collision to catch the occupant's head and ease it back.

Power-adjustable head restraints, found only in luxury vehicles, may seem a frivolity, but they have a safety benefit. Because their position typically can be stored in a memory setting along with the seat adjustments, two drivers who share the vehicle will always have the head restraint properly positioned, whereas they might forget to adjust the manual type.

Tilt/telescoping steering wheel: More modest vehicles have manually adjusted steering wheels that less frequently include a telescoping adjustment. A luxury car is more likely to include a power-adjustable steering wheel, and these usually telescope as well as tilt. Both are safety features: Aside from making the driver as comfortable as possible, the telescoping adjustment in particular helps distance the driver properly from the airbag, regardless of his or her size. Many luxury cars also store the wheel's position along with seat settings for different drivers to choose at the touch of a button.

Adjustable pedals: Luxury vehicles aren't the sole domain of power-adjustable pedals, but many crossover and SUV models offer them. They serve a similar purpose as the telescoping steering wheel, allowing drivers to distance themselves optimally from the steering wheel without compromising pedal reach. They're especially valuable for shorter SUV drivers.

Sonar and backup cameras: Audible park-assistance sonar and backup cameras mainly protect your bumpers — and anything they might contact — from damage, but they have a safety benefit, too. SUV blind spots seem to be the safety concern du jour because it's possible to back up into fairly tall things or people. These features are no substitute for reasonable care, but they can help you avoid hitting someone or rolling over your spouse's garden. (If that's not a personal safety issue, we don't know what is.) Backup cameras are superior. Though they used to come only with high-priced optional navigation systems, more affordable stand-alone backup camera options have proliferated in the past few years. They use small displays in the dashboard or on the rearview mirror. The Infiniti EX SUV was the first model to offer Around View Monitor, a system of multiple cameras that shows blind spots below the windows, all around the vehicle. BMW and Rolls-Royce have followed suit with cameras that show the sides and rear, and another pair that peek sideways from the front fenders, allowing you to see around corners as you creep into an intersection.

Headlights and night vision: Luxury vehicles bear some of the latest advances in vision technology. The elementary concept here is that you won't hit something you can see. When it comes to seeing at night, xenon high-intensity-discharge headlights and LED headlamps are superior to conventional incandescents. They're brighter, they cover a wider field of view, and they produce more ultraviolet light, which better illuminates reflective road signs. Swiveling headlights that swing in the direction of a turn are now available on many luxury models. The latest feature is headlights that automatically switch between low and high beams by sensing other cars' headlights and taillights.

Night vision isn't new in the automotive market, though Cadillac — the first company to implement it in the U.S., in its 2000 DeVille — has since abandoned it. The technology was later implemented by BMW and Mercedes-Benz. Adapted from military use, cameras in the grille or front bumper see infrared heat rather than light. As a result, they tend to show oncoming headlights as dots rather than glare, and people, running cars and animals tend to stick out. They allow you to see farther and wider than headlights, and Mercedes boosts its system with infrared headlights that illuminate the road ahead without blinding oncoming drivers. The displays are on the dashboard or instrument panel, so staring at them is unwise, but they are a useful supplement. Back to top

Why Are Luxury Vehicles So Safe?

There are a few reasons for luxury vehicles' excellent crash-test performance: construction, weight and features, though not necessarily in that order.

Construction: Luxury cars are heavy and expensive to build. Automakers can justify both because they can charge more for these models and sell them to buyers who want power and don't care as much about mileage. Where an economy-car buyer would blanch at lower mileage figures, luxury buyers, as a class, look the other way.

Weight: Relative weight is not reflected in frontal crash tests because the crashed car hits an immovable barrier. But in a real collision, all other factors being equal, mass is an advantage. Some of the weight comes from the additional standard features. Quiet cabins also are valued in luxury vehicles, and noise control represents weight. Everything from thicker glass to metal coatings and thick, sand-filled firewalls silence noise while raising vehicle weight.

Luxury vehicles are often the first to introduce new safety technology. They typically offer more safety features compared with nonluxury vehicles, and they're usually the first to include these features as standard equipment. For example, GM introduced its StabiliTrak electronic stability system first in a Cadillac, and Audi was the first manufacturer to include a standard stability system in every one of its models. Back to top

How About Luxury SUVs?

IIHS' lack of crash-test data on full-size SUVs makes it hard to compare luxury to nonluxury results — say, the Chevrolet Tahoe versus the Cadillac Escalade. But there are some crash-test results for large crossovers, and plenty of IIHS data on midsize luxury SUVs, which, as a class, post significantly better crash-test results than do nonluxury SUVs. Back to top

© Cars.com 12/11/2012