Budget Buys: The Safest Cars Under $3000, 2014 Edition

Buying a new safe car these days is easier than ever, as ever-more features become standardized across the US fleet, such as head/torso side airbags, electronic stability control, and good front, side, and roof scores. However, if you’re on a budget, the search does become significantly more challenging. Fortunately, there are safe cars available at every budget that are worth considering if you are invested in keeping yourself and your loved ones safe on the road. Here are my recommendations for the safest cars you’re likely to find for $3000 or less as of May 2014. Prices are based on private party prices in the Chicago Craigslist. I’ll post similar lists for minivans and SUVs soon.

e-class - 2003 - publicdomain2000-2002 Mercedes E Class (e.g., E 320)

The Mercedes E 320 is, hands down, the safest car available at under 3k today, simply due to its extremely low driver death rate of 10, which rivals those of the newest vehicles on the road today. It came standard with ESC from 2000. It came standard with front and rear head airbags and front torso bags from 1999; rear torso bags were added in 2000. Most brand new vehicles today still don’t come with rear torso bags. ESC only became required on all new vehicles 2 years ago in 2012, while it’s been standard in the E Class for 14 years. It also has a “good” frontal score.

The primary downside to the Mercedes–well, to every Mercedes–is maintenance. You really need to know how to fix these or know someone who can do so cheaply, or you might easily spend the value of the car yearly in repairs.

There are currently 2 listed in the Chicago Craigslist between $1000 and $3000.

passat - 2001 - publicdomain2001-2004 Volkswagen Passat

The Passat is a car I’d recommend from the safety perspective, if not from the maintenance point of view. From 2001 onward, it comes with front head/torso side airbags and rear head airbags. It has a “good” frontal score, though no side or roof scores, and comes with ABS and daytime running lights. ESC became an option from 2003 onward. The 2000-2002 Passat has a driver death rate of 16, while the 2001-2004 Passat has a driver death rate of 35. It is unclear why the death rate doubled, but it suggests that the lower death rate between 2000 and 2002 may have had more to do with good fortune than with the safety of the vehicle.

The primary downside to the Passat is its reliability. They’re complex cars that require either skilled owners or trusted mechanics. Without either, the cost of ownership can rise quite quickly.

There are 27 currently listed in the Chicago Craigslist between $1000 and $3000.

avalon-2000-publicdomain2000-2002 Toyota Avalon

The Avalon is another highly recommended choice in this budget range. It came standard with front torso airbags, ABS, and daytime running lights. It weighs in at 3468 lbs. Unfortunately, it does not come with head airbags. However, it is only available in two trim levels: XL and XLS, and the XLS trim level comes standard with ESC, so keep an eye out for these. The Avalon weighs 3468 lbs and has a “good” frontal score. The 2000-2002 driver death rate is 45, while the ’01-’04 rate is 39. The 2001-2004 Avalon is functionally identical to the 2000 to 2002 Avalon, as both are within the same 2000-2004 generation.

The primary downside to the Avalon is the lack of side head airbags. However, they are extremely reliable cars, with some drivers reporting upwards of 500k miles on original engines and transmissions.

There are 4 currently listed in Chicago between $1000 and $3000.

s80 - 99 - publicdomain2000-2002 Volvo S80

The Volvo makes the list because it is another solid contender with front and rear head airbags and front torso airbags. It also comes standard with ABS and DRL and a “good” frontal score. It weighs in at 3576 lbs. Unfortunately, it does not come with ESC, and like all other vehicles of this time period, it does not come with side or roof scores. However, ESC is available as an option. The 1999-2002 driver death rate is 45. The 2001-2004 death rate is 29. While it does not come with a side rating, it would likely have received a “marginal” or “acceptable” side score based on the performance of the S60 at the time, with which it shares a number of structural components.

The downside to the S80, as is the case with most of the cars on this list, lies in reliability and the costs of maintenance, which can be significant for Volvos overall. There are also transmission issues with several S80s of this age.

There are 6 currently listed in Chicago between $1000 and $3000.

Not every safe vehicle in this budget range is on the list. For example, the Volvo V70 and S60 from this era would also be worth considering, although I did not include either since driver death rate data was unavailable for either vehicle.

Stay tuned for future posts investigating the safety of minivans and SUVs in this price range. When it comes to keeping your family safe, driving safely and having safety gear is important. However, it is essential to make sure the vehicle you’re driving has the crashworthiness necessary to protect you in the event of a collision. If this list is helpful, share it with your friends and family to keep them safe.

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