Car Choice: 'I want a car that makes me feel safe'

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Indy Lifestyle Online

Robert Baker has been really unlucky. In the last two years, he has had three car accidents within minutes of arriving for or leaving from work. All three were the other driver's fault. Two of the crashes wrote his car off. The latest one saw an HGV destroy his year-old Focus. He has around £7,500 to spend and is happy to consider second-hand if necessary.

It would be easy to be facetious in this situation, but I'm glad Robert has survived unscathed. I would like to think that Robert has just been incredibly unlucky. Possibly the sub-text of his question is that Robert would like a car in which he feels safer, or maybe he just wants a Focus-sized hatch for £7,500. I think we can deal with both concerns.

The theory of crash avoidance systems is tempting and indeed Mercedes have successfully tested such a radar system even though they are not infallible. Indeed the Mercedes system failed to work within the metal walls of their own test centre because it interfered with the signal and the car could not brake in time.

Surely every car needs a crash avoidance system for us all to be 100 per cent safe. The best we can hope for is effective passive safety systems such as airbags and seatbelts and active safety features such as ABS brakes and traction control. So what vehicles are they?

A CAR FOR THE HEAD

My favourite safe car has to be the Saab 9-3. That's the older model and not the current one which is not only safe, but extremely good value for money.

It would be possible for Robert to pay considerably less than his budget and get an extremely safe car. Standard equipment includes twin front and side airbags, ABS brakes, a three-point centre rear belt and anti-whiplash seats.

An idle flip through the classifieds quickly turns up a 1999 S model with 50,000 miles for just £4,200. Even a late model 2001 with SE specification and just 8,000 more miles is just £5,795. According to the Swedish insurance Folksam ( www.folksam.se) that I regularly mention which collates real world accidents it is the second safest car after a larger Saab 9-5. Certainly the Saab will be bigger than the Focus, but I reckon he will quickly get used to that and come to appreciate the comfort and practical space.

The seats are great and the level of refinement is impressive with hardly any outside noise intruding into the cabin. The layout of the dashboard is very logical and that helps driver concentration and there's the gimmicky night panel which switches off all the distracting instruments and illuminations when it gets dark. Yes, it's perfectly safe.

A CAR FOR THE HEART

If we simply use the Euro NCAP results (as opposed to the Folksam statistics) as our safety guide then there is an instant shortlist which includes the Ford Focus, the latest Astra and Renault Megane.

All these cars scored five stars and I don't know whether Robert's Focus, the one that sacrificed itself for him, was the current five-star model. Indeed there is a debate you could have about the value of the Euro NCAP tests, but that is for another day.

What Robert really needs to know is which five-star car, if any, is within the £7,500 budget. Potentially they all are, but I would be inclined to point him in the direction of Megane because Renault has committed themselves to making their cars Euro NCAP friendly.

Also in the classifieds, I found a 2004 1.6 Dynamique being sold privately for £7,500. It is an interesting car with low insurance ratings because of its safety, as five-door models have eight airbags.

The styling is certainly unique, but if Robert liked the original Focus he should not mind the stumpy rear end, even if that does harbour some nasty blind spots. Overall the Megane is quiet and refined and the driver is comfy. They sit high and can see forward very clearly whilst the instruments are easy to see and use.

CAR CHOICE Please write to Car Choice, Features, Independent House, 191 Marsh Wall, London E14 9RS, or e-mail James Ruppert at carchoice@independent.co.uk, giving your age, address and contact number, and details of the type of vehicle in which you are interested.

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