For the last three years, I’ve been rocking the car-free lifestyle in L.A. It’s been a fun and enlightening experiment, but I’m ready to make a change. As much as I’ve loved not paying $600 per month to own a car (all in, annualized), my perspective on life has changed. I’ve decided that I want to start taking road trips with my dog, Katie, to visit my Father in Santa Barbara and explore more of Northern California and the Pacific Northwest. What I don’t want to do is rent a car every time I decide to go on one.
In reviewing current models, options, and deals over the last few weeks, I was reminded that choosing a car is about more than just the money you’ll spend. It’s about figuring out what’s most important to you.
A bad car accident in the summer of 2005 changed my criteria for getting a vehicle. Up to that point, my only safety concern was making sure that a car had airbags (mine in high school didn’t…seriously). After spending a week in the hospital and three subsequent months learning how to walk again, safety became the most important, and an absolutely non-negotiable, consideration for me.
We were incredibly fortunate that my friend, Jenny, who was driving that night, had just bought a new Jetta. It had state-of-the-art airbag and crash-protection technology and was designed to absorb the force of a major collision and protect the occupants. Even though her car was completely crushed in on both sides and in the front, it did exactly what it was intended to do – it saved our lives. Looking back, I realize that things could’ve been much worse had we been riding in an older or less safe vehicle.
If safety is a major decider for you as well, here are my go-to resources to research the current and/or older models of any car you’re interested in getting:
- Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) – An independent, nonprofit scientific and educational organization dedicated to reducing the losses – deaths, injuries, and property damage – from motor vehicle crashes. Their tests evaluate two aspects of safety: (1) crashworthiness – how well a vehicle protects its occupants in a crash – and (2) crash avoidance and mitigation – technology that can prevent a crash or lessen its severity. In 2016, IIHS launched headlight ratings, filling a void in information about this basic equipment.
- National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) – Established in 1970 by The Highway Safety Act, its mission is to reduce deaths, injuries, and economic losses resulting from motor vehicle crashes. The NHTSA’s New Car Assessment Program (NCAP) created the 5-Star Safety Ratings Program to provide consumers with information about the crash protection and rollover safety of new vehicles beyond what is required by Federal law. One star is the lowest rating; five stars is the highest. More stars equal safer cars.
After several weeks of cross-checking the safety ratings of midsize SUVs on the IIHS and NHTSA sites, I’ve whittled the search down to three highly ranked options. Now I can shift my focus to choosing the one that best meets my needs (hello, road tripping!) and is affordable for my budget. Saving money by going with the cheapest car from the get-go might seem like a good idea, but, in the end, protecting yourself and your passengers is one of the smartest financial decisions you can make when buying or leasing a car.