Budget Buys: The Safest SUVs & Minivans Under $6000, 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 minivans and SUVs 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 minivans and SUVs you’re likely to find for $6000 or less as of May 2014. Prices are based on private party prices in the Chicago Craigslist. I posted a similar list for cars a bit earlier.

4runner - 1996 - publicdomain2001-2002 Toyota 4Runner

The 2001-2002 Toyota 4Runner has one of the lowest driver death rates ever calculated at 12. It comes with ESC starting in 2001 4WD models, as well as ABS standard from 2001 onward. However, it lacks side airbags of any kind, and it only has an “acceptable” frontal crash score. That said, the head/neck subscore is “good”, which is the most important subscore in front or side collisions.

Furthermore, while the driver death rate for the ’01-’02 4Runner is 12, it’s worth keeping in mind that all 6 single vehicle deaths came from rollovers, suggesting the roof score, if it had been rated, would be “poor.”

The main disadvantages of the 4Runner lie in the lack of side airbags. Its advantages include its very low driver death rate and exceptional degree of reliability.

There are 7 currently listed in the Chicago Craigslist between $3000 and $6000.

m-class - 2002 - publicdomain2002-2004 Mercedes M Class (e.g., ML320)

The ML320 is an exceptionally safe vehicle on paper, with front and rear head curtain airbags and front and rear-mounted torso airbags. It comes with a “good” frontal score. It also comes standard with ESC and ABS. The M Class has a driver death rate of 14, which again is one of the lowest calculated in any safety report.

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 3 currently listed in the Chicago Craigslist between $3000 and $6000.

rx300 - 2000 - publicdomain
2001-2002 Lexus RX 300

The RX 300 is a great choice for a safe and reliable SUV on a budget. It comes standard with ESC, ABS, DRL, and front torso side airbags. It comes with a “good” front score. The structural component of the score is only “acceptable”, which isn’t my favorite, but again, the head/neck component is “good”, which is the most important part. The driver death rate for the ’01-’02 RX 300 is 17, which is again very reassuring.

The main disadvantages of the RX300 lie in the lack of side head airbags. Its advantages include its very low driver death rate and exceptional degree of reliability, as a Lexus is essentially a fancy Toyota.

There are 5 currently listed in the Chicago Craigslist between $3000 and $6000.

sienna-gen2-publicdomain2004+ Toyota Sienna

The Sienna is the first minivan to make the list, and is one of the safest vehicles money can buy. It does not come with head/torso airbags standard until 2006, although the highest trim levels do include it from 2004. ESC is also optional in 2004 except on the highest trim levels. However, it comes with a “good” frontal score (which includes every subscore). Furthermore, the driver death rate for the ’04 Sienna is 17.

The main disadvantages of the Toyota lie in the lack of side airbags of any kind, as well as the lack of ESC as standard features. Its advantages include its very low driver death rate and exceptional degree of reliability.

There are 5 currently listed in the Chicago Craigslist between $3000 and $6000.

odyssey - 2002 - publicdomain1999-2004 Honda Odyssey

Like the Sienna, the Odyssey makes the top safety lists year after year for good reason; it has a history of safe performance on the road. The Odyssey comes with a “good” frontal score (although the structural score is only “acceptable”, the head/neck subscore is “good”), ABS, and front side torso bags starting in 2002. Downsides to the Odyssey include the lack of ESC or head side airbags in any trim levels. The ’99-’04 generation are also susceptible to repeated transmission failures.

The driver death rate for the ’99-’02 Odyssey is 19, while the driver death rate for the ’02 to ’04 Odyssey, which is an extension of the same generation, is nearly identical at 17.

There are 66 2002+ Odysseys currently listed in the Chicago Craigslist between $3000 and $6000.

pilot - 2006 - publicdomain2003-2004 Honda Pilot

The Pilot has also earned a safety reputation over the years. The 2003 Pilot has a “good” frontal score. It also comes standard with front torso airbags and ABS. However, it doesn’t come with ESC until 2005.

The Pilot comes with a low driver death rate of 19 for the 2003-2004 model years. Its main disadvantages include the lack of ESC and head airbags.

There are 11 currently listed in the Chicago Craigslist between $3000 and $6000.

x5 - 2004 - publicdomain
2001-2004 BMW X5

On paper, the X5 is a highly impressive vehicle. It comes standard with front side head and torso airbags, while rear head airbags became standard in 2003. It is only the second vehicle on this list to feature head airbag protection. It also features ESC and ABS standard. As a result, its low driver death rate of 19 is hardly surprising. It also has a “good” frontal score.

However, despite the very low driver death rate, it’s worth noting that the 2000-2002 X5 has a calculated driver death rate of 33. In both cases, rollovers made up nearly all of the fatalities in single vehicle crashes, suggesting it would have received a “poor” roof score had it been rated.

The primary downside to the BMW–well, to every BMW–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 4 currently listed in the Chicago Craigslist between $3000 and $6000.

xc90gen1-publicdomain
2003+ Volvo XC90

Last but not least, the Volvo XC90 deserves a mention. It is quite possible that this may be the safest vehicle in the entire list, even though it is the only vehicle present without a measured driver death rate. Why consider it without an objective, real-world assessment of its crashworthiness?

That’s because on paper, it’s the safest SUV here. It comes standard with head airbags for all three rows and front-mounted torso airbags. It has a rollover sensor to deploy side airbags before impending rollovers, and is the only vehicle on this list to do so. It also includes ESC, ABS, and DRL. It comes with “good” moderate overlap and small overlap scores, as well as a roof score, and is the only vehicle here to feature roof and small overlap scores this long ago.

With all of these stellar features, what’s there not to love about the XC90? Well, like any modern Volvo, it can cost an arm and a leg to repair. Several XC90s came with defective transmissions (stay away from the T6 models) and a number of other frustrations that lead many to sell them. However, if you’ve got deep pockets, a trusted mechanic, or the time and skills to repair it, there isn’t a safer vehicle on the list.

There are 4 currently listed in the Chicago Craigslist between $3000 and $6000.

This list is not all-inclusive. Despite having low driver death rates, I left a number of vehicles off this list, including various years of the Chevrolet Astro, Nissan Pathfinder, Toyota Highlander, and Sequoia. Some of these vehicles were left off because they either did not include ESC as a standard feature, came with poor frontal scores, or lacked side torso airbags as well as side head airbags.

Stay tuned for future posts investigating the safety of cars 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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