Like the exploding fuel tanks in Ford's Pinto and the Ford Explorer rollover controversies of yesteryear, Toyota's recall of 2.3 million vehicles for what they call a gas pedal defect has accelerated America's attention on auto safety.
Drawing from research conducted by Consumer Reports and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, as well as from interviews with auto safety experts such as Kelley Blue Book's executive editorial director Jack Nerad, ABCNews.com has compiled its own roundup of the safest car choices for drivers of all stripes.
If increasing the odds of surviving a head-on collision -- the most common type of fatal traffic accident -- is a car buyer's paramount concern, then basic laws of physics trump fancy safety features. In other words, size matters.
"The single most important contributor to a vehicle's crash survivability is its mass," said Russ Rader, a spokesman for the Arlington, Va.-based Insurance Institute, which conducts ongoing crash tests on 150 vehicles.
SUVs and pickup trucks are weighty by nature, but at the same time, they take longer to stop and are more susceptible to rollovers, another leading type of traffic fatality.
So focusing on sedans, sparing no expense and taking into consideration its storied history as a leader in safety innovation, Volvo races to mind when evaluating safe cars, most experts agree. The Volvo S80 ranked among the four safest "large" cars that were collision-tested by the Insurance Institute. Nerad, who has been writing about auto safety for more than a decade, conceded that as his younger children now approach driving age he has been giving this issue a lot of extra thought lately. He is leaning toward Volvo.
"Volvo walks the talk on safety," Nerad said. "Being on the cutting edge is part of their culture."
Considering size and design durability, plus overlaying all of the advanced technological features Volvo drivers have come to expect, such as automatic driver alerts helping to mitigate everything from lane drift to blind spots, the Volvo S80 has to be considered a standard bearer in the drive toward safest car ever built.
In a perfect world, even the most affordable cars would be as safe as any big car on the road, and experts agree the comparative differences are, as the years go by, starting to diminish. In a tough economy, however, many car buyers are forced to weigh price alongside or even above safety, which is why the Subaru Impreza Outback Sport takes the pole position in the lower-cost bracket.
With some versions priced under $20,000, and as one of only two vehicles to turn up on both the Consumer Reports and IIHS safest cars lists, the Impreza is, well, impressive, pointed out Mike Quincy, an automotive analyst at the Consumer Reports test center. "It's a small wagon, has very reliable brakes, electronic stability control, all-wheel drive; it just handles well," Quincy said.
The hybrid Toyota Prius dominates the most-miles-to-the-gallon milieu and has no proven sudden acceleration problems, (although Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak claims that his Prius has a software-related cruise-control defect.) But the Prius does not turn up among the two dozen or so 2010 models that most protected the Insurance Institute's crash test dummies.
The next best thing? "You couldn't go wrong with the Honda Civic," said Nerad, acknowledging that among the institute's top-ranked small cars, the Civic carries the day from a traditional fuel efficiency standpoint. To make the IIHS ranking, a car had to have the highest of four possible ratings ("good" as opposed to "acceptable," "marginal" or "poor") in all four crash tests (front, rear, side, rollover) and also have electronic stability control features (which are increasingly common in all types of vehicles, if not yet ubiquitous.)
No one ever got T-boned riding the subway, although some urban dwellers still want their wheels. For city driving, the edge goes to the Volvo XC60. It's the only car on the road today to feature automatic braking. "In stop and go situations, if the person ahead of you stops suddenly, the Volvo XC60 will stop automatically if the driver doesn't hit the brake fast enough," said Nerad. "Typically, Volvo has this type of advanced capability." Still, this model wasn't as maneuverable as some others tested, said Quincy.
Forget fuel efficiency and rollover concerns -- some people, particularly farmers and other rural residents (not to mention Massachusetts' new Senator-elect Scott Brown) simply won't drive anything other than a pickup truck. The one model that experts at Consumer Reports, Kelley and the Insurance Institute all agree on is the Ford F150, which scored high in rollover survivability tests, is tops. "Good brakes," Quincy added.
Quincy, like other automotive experts, stressed the difficulty of trying to pick the singularly safest cars, pointing to the growing parity among automakers in technological innovations. He offered numerous other candidates for car buyers to consider, while also taking issue with the presumption that Volvo has cornered the market on superior safety. "There are plenty of car companies that have just as much or more safety equipment than Volvo," Quincy said.
Among the other vehicles Quincy viewed as among the safest, across categories and in no particular order: Audi A6, Acura RL, Volkswagon Golf, and three pickup trucks, the Toyota Tundra, Toyota Tacoma and the Honda Ridgeline.