The West

Little stars get safety thumbs-uo
Little stars get safety thumbs-uo

Can a car be tiny yet safe? It's a question many parents ponder when their offspring are buying their first cars.

If you're suffering such anxieties, I have some very good news on the safety of low-price new cars.

It's a far better story than the one I told in 2008. Back then, I wrote a cover story called Tiny Yet Safe, with criticisms that didn't please a car maker or three.

That's because some of Australia's most popular cars didn't rate a mention on my top 10 list of safest buys under $18,000.

Just one model (Mazda2) had a five-star safety rating so I wrote: "It's not a happy situation, given a tiny car is often the first set of wheels for young drivers."

Hardly any of the cars on that list provided electronic stability, a magical-yet-cheap technology, which detects the start of a skid.

The system then intervenes, via measured engine and individual- wheel braking to slow and correct the car.

In WA, where single-vehicle accidents on country roads take many young lives, ESP is a must-have.

Think of a narrow bitumen road. After moving over to make space for an oncoming vehicle, two wheels are running on the gravel verge.

Nerve-racking for any of us.

At this point, with the car perhaps doing 80km/h, any sharp braking or steering could be fatal, especially in a non-ESP vehicle.

The car is likely to skid out of control then roll or strike another car or a tree.

Remarkably, in 2008 some cheap cars favoured by first-car buyers didn't even have anti-lock brakes, a technology I think Caesar might have had on his chariot.

My other bugbear was airbags, with most cheaper cars in 2008 on a ration of two.

The pair of instantly inflating balloons could be life-saving in frontal collisions but no help in a side impact or rollover.

Missing were side airbags to protect the torso of front occupants and curtain bags to cushion the heads of people in the front and back.

So, what's the great news for worried parents?

As the graphic shows, there are now 10 models to choose from with five-star crash ratings under $18,000. All have ABS and ESP, which is now mandatory, and all provide at least six airbags.

The Fiesta, though, is tricky.

The entry CL variant is four stars unless you add the $600 safety pack.

That's a very old-school approach for such a hip car.

Some listed cars, such as the Fiesta (with safety pack), Suzuki Swift and Toyota Yaris, provide a seventh balloon to protect the driver's legs.

The structural safety of light cars has also improved markedly.

To a parent's safety wish list, I would add Bluetooth technology (for hands-free phone/iPod use) and seatbelt alarms (to annoy them into buckling up).

Some cheapies do come with Bluetooth, which can otherwise be retrofitted inexpensively.

In 2008, I didn't see the safety improvements coming so rapidly.

Indeed, it's been something of a revolution, and for that I take my hat off to car makers. Yes, they did get a lot of safety-lobbyist and media pressure.

But the beefing up of safety features nevertheless came in advance of consumer demand.

While safety is now well up on buyers' agendas, in 2008 few were ticking safety-options boxes.

More likely, they would have gone for the fancier audio system or sunroof.

I think Caesar might have had anti-lock brakes on his chariot.

In 2008, Stephen Williams won both the State Government's media and overall awards for contributions to road safety.

The West Australian

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