Car Choice: Thinking big doesn't guarantee safety

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Indy Lifestyle Online

Valerie Lewis is looking for a replacement for her Renault Clio, which was written off recently.

She now feels that she should drive a larger vehicle to feel safe, but does not want anything too big. Her short-list cars such as the Renault Megane, Ford Focus, Mazda 3, Mitsubishi Colt and Shogun Pinin, Toyota Rav-4 and Land-Rover Freelander.

She would like to buy a new vehicle but, with an upper limit of approx £12,000, she realises that the 4x4s are out of her price range and would consider buying a used car. Safety is her main priority with reliability and value for money coming a close second and third.

I don't know which model Clio Valerie had, but Renault has set safety as one of its core values. The latest Clio, which is due to be replaced soon, scores a creditable four stars in the Euro NCAP crash safety ratings.

However, some research bodies claim that laboratory-staged crashes (such as those used to generate the NCAP ratings) are not necessarily the best indicators of what would happen in a real accident.

Some insurance companies have researched injuries and deaths occurring in real accidents over a long period. The best-known of these studys is the Folksam survey, compiled by Folksam Fond, Sweden's largest insurer, which is based on data on every injury-sustaining accident that occurs in the country.

The Saab 9-5 and 9-3 come out on top, whereas at the other end of the scale the early 1990s Nissan Micra, Citroen AX and Renault Twingo were not so good. That seems to confirm Valerie's fear of small vehicles, and certainly you can feel a lot safer with more metal around you.

However off-road vehicles are not necessarily safer, as they are top-heavy, have less-responsive handling and need longer distances in which to stop.

A CAR FOR THE HEAD

I would never recommend that anyone buy an off-roader just to feel safer, but I would recommend the protection of a safe badge with Saab written on it.

Folksam highlights both the Saab 9-3 and 9-5 as being very safe. Indeed the previous generation 9-3 is 30 per cent safer than the average car, while the 9-5 is a full 40 per cent safer and is the only vehicle in their survey to be so highly rated.

The great thing is that Valerie won't have to pay anywhere near £12,000 to get one of these cars. Indeed, Manheim auctions recently revealed that it is possible to buy a Saab 9-3 for around £1,000. OK, so it will probably have done 140,000 miles, but with a full service history it is likely to have plenty of life left in it.

The sheer size of a Saab compared with a Clio may put Valerie off, though. But a 9-3 or 9-5 is no bigger than the off-roaders she says she is interested in, and in many cases will be smaller, easier to drive and much more comfortable.

Saabs are always well-equipped, and with a budget of around £8,000 Valerie would be spoilt for choice.

A CAR FOR THE HEART

If Valerie wants to keep it small, the Renault Megane starts at £11,230. According to the NCAP results it has a very stable body that protects its occupants very well, and it scored full marks in the side-impact assessment and lost only two points in the frontal impact.

Another option is the new Renault Modus, which starts at £9,250. Last November it was awarded the maximum five-star rating by Euro NCAP crash tests, making it the first five-star small car and the safest in its class, scoring 32.84 points out of 37.

Certainly the Modus is larger and more versatile than the Clio, and is aimed at customers who want more practical small cars. It can seat four in comfort and has a sliding rear bench that gives the option of either more luggage or passenger space.

Valerie should enjoy the high seating position of the Modus, which gives an excellent view of the road ahead. The flat rear end makes it easy to reverse into tight spaces.

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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