Your buying guide to the safest used cars

Olga de MoellerThe West Australian
2017 Volvo XC60.
Camera Icon2017 Volvo XC60. Credit: Volvo/Supplied

Newer vehicles are generally safer than older ones in a crash, with the latest figures showing that 64 per cent of fatalities in 2020 occurred in cars aged 10 years or more.

Compiled by the Monash University Accident Research Centre and released yesterday by the RAC, this year’s Used Car Safety Ratings 2021 are based on nearly nine million police-reported crashes in Australia and New Zealand during 1987-2019.

Cars are rated out of five stars for driver protection from death or serious injury, taking into account safety features such as airbags, type of seatbelts and structural design.

Out of the 289 vehicle models in the ratings guide, which encompasses a manufacture year of 2000 onwards (with some overlapping earlier models), only 52 got five stars.

Additionally, five-star cars which also cause less serious injuries to other drivers, pedestrians, cyclists and motorcyclists in a crash — and have a lower risk of being involved in a crash, including reversing crashes — get the top Safer Pick designation.

Most Safer Pick vehicles were manufactured from 2008 and those on our list made the grade this year.

MUARC project lead associate professor Stuart Newstead said the calculation of Safer Pick vehicles was reviewed annually.

“In the 2021 update, the Safer Pick vehicles were defined as having crashworthiness and total safety in the best rating category, aggressivity and primary safety not worse than average, and the vehicle model being available with ESC (electronic stability control) and a reversing technology, so reversing sensors and/or camera,” he said.

A further 54 vehicles were scored as “good” with four stars.

Notably, not one vehicle in the light cars category got five stars, with most scoring only one star, including the Suzuki Swift (2005-2010 and 2011-2017), Nissan Micra (2011-2016), Ford Fiesta (2004-2008), Holden Barina (1995-2000 and 2005-2011) and Kia Rio (2000-2005 and 2005-2011).

The Kia Rio 2011-2016 scored three stars, which is classed as “marginal”, and only the Volkswagen Polo (2010-2017) and Honda City (2009-2013) rated four stars.

The ratings also note that a driver of the worst vehicle is over 10 times more likely to be killed or seriously injured in the same crash than the same driver in the safest vehicle, highlighting that the average risk of death or serious injury to the driver in a crash in a vehicle manufactured in 2019 is about 47 per cent less than in a vehicle manufactured in 2000. This is because newer vehicles have a wide range of safety features, including airbags that protect in front and side impact crashes and active safety aids, such as ESC.

They must also comply with a wider range of regulatory safety standards.

There was no Safer Pick in the light cars, small SUV, people mover, ute or van categories, however some did score five stars for driver protection, including the Ford Ranger (2011-2015), Mazda BT-50 (2011-2015) and Volkswagen Amarok (2011-2019).

Mercedes-Benz E-Class 2016.
Camera IconMercedes-Benz E-Class 2016. Credit: Mercedes-Benz

Only one large car, the Mercedes-Benz E-Class (W212/C207/A207) scored a Safer Pick.

The best performers were large SUVs, picking up the most five-star and Safer Pick ratings proportionally in a vehicle category.

Medium SUVs were not far behind, both categories cementing their popularity with families as Australia’s top-selling cars.

Mercedes-Benz was by far the best-performed brand across all categories, followed by Audi.

The RAC’s manager of vehicles and fuels Alex Forrest says that regardless who’s at fault, the safety credentials of your vehicle can be the difference between walking away from a crash, or being killed or seriously injured, noting that this year’s guide shows us how easy it is to mistakenly buy an unsafe car given that 60 per cent of vehicles rated three stars or below.

“Used Car Safety Ratings allow consumers to make informed decisions by providing valuable safety information on how a used vehicle compares to other vehicles of the same age for crash protection,” he said.

“On average, a driver of a one-star rated vehicle is around 21/2 times more likely to be killed or seriously injured than the same driver in the same crash driving a five-star rated vehicle.”

The Used Car Safety Ratings 2021 can be viewed here.

MUARC analysed 378 vehicle models in total this year, with ratings for older models manufactured from 1982 included here.

Audi S3 2017.
Camera IconAudi S3 2017. Credit: Audi


Audi A3, 2004-2013

Audi A3/RS3/S3, 2013-2019

BMW 1 Series, 2011-2019

Mercedes-Benz A-Class (W176), 2012-2018

Subaru Impreza/XV, 2012-2016

Toyota Prius 3, 2009-2016


Audi A4/S4/RS4/AllRoad B8, 2008-2015

Mercedes-Benz C-Class (W205/S205/C205/A205), 2014-2019

Mercedes-Benz CLK-Class (C209), 2003-2009

Subaru Liberty/Legacy/Outback/ Exiga, 2009-2014


Mercedes-Benz E-Class W212/C207/A207, 2009-2016


Audi Q5/SQ5, 2009-2016

BMW X3, 2010-2017

Ford Kuga, 2013-2016

Hyundai Santa Fe, 2012-2018

Mitsubishi Outlander, 2006-2012

Nissan Murano, 2009-2015

Peugeot 4007, 2006-2012

Subaru Forester, 2012-2018

Toyota Kluger/Highlander, 2013-2019

Volvo XC60, 2009-2017


Audi Q7, 2006-2014

BMW X5, 2001-2006

BMW X5, 2007-2013

Isuzu MU-X, 2013-2019

Jeep Grand Cherokee 2010-2019

Mercedes-Benz ML-Class/GL/GLE/GLS, 2012-2019

Mercedes-Benz ML-Class/GL-Class, 2005-2011

Mercedes-Benz ML-Class, 1998-2005

Volvo XC90, 2003-2015

(Light cars, small SUVs, people movers, utes and vans had no Safer Pick.)

BMW X5 2013.
Camera IconBMW X5 2013. Credit: Jeep


It’s possible to pick up a used car on the Safety Pick list for under $10,000, depending on the make and model you’re after.

RedBook has the following ones listed across various categories, with some popular performers for people looking for a bargain:

2006 BMW X5 E53 4x4, automatic, MY06: $7100-$9100 ($85,000 price when new). Standard equipment includes cruise control, rain sensor auto wipers, ABS brakes, brake assist, ESC, hill descent, colour display screen, CD player with six-disc stacker, analog TV tuner, bluetooth and airbags for driver, passenger, head (first and second-row occupants) and side (first and second-row occupants).

2011 Volvo XC60 D5, AWD, automatic, MY11: $9700-$11,500 ($59,950 price when new). Standard equipment includes ABS brakes, brake assist, regenerative brakes, ESC, traction control, hill descent, rollover stability, MP3 audio, USB socket, forward-collision mitigation (low speed), integrated child seats, rain sensor auto wipers, electric parking brake and airbags for driver, passenger, head (first and second-row seats) and side (first-row occupant).

2013 Audi A3 Attraction, auto, MY14: $14,500-$16,700 ($39,800 price when new). Standard equipment includes cruise control, rain sensor auto wipers, tyre pressure monitoring, ESC, traction control, bluetooth, ABS brakes, brake assist, engine stop-start system and airbags for driver, knee driver, passenger, head (front and rear seats) and side (front row only).

2013 Hyundai Santa Fe Active, 4x4, manual, MY14: $15,500-$17,800 ($37,990 price when new). Standard equipment includes cruise control, ABS brakes, brake assist, ESC, traction control, hill descent, active torque transfer system, rear camera with rear parking distance control, bluetooth and airbags for driver, knee driver, passenger, head (first, second and third rows) and side (front row only).

015 Jeep Grand Cherokee Blackhawk, 4x4, sports automatic, MY15: $23,500-$26,300 ($52,000 price when new). Standard equipment includes ABS, brake assist, ESC, rollover stability, trailer sway, cruise control, partial digital instrument display, rear camera, parking assist, proximity key with keyless start, airbags for driver, knee driver, passenger, head (first and second row) and side (front-row occupants).

Hyundai Santa Fe 2018.
Camera IconHyundai Santa Fe 2018. Credit: Mark Bramley

The Monash University Accident Research Centre says these are some of the key vehicle safety features you should look for when buying a used car:

*Anti-lock brake system.

*Autonomous emergency braking including pedestrian and cyclist.

*Blind-spot monitoring.

*Electronic Stability Control.

*Airbags — front, side, curtain and knee.

*Lane-departure warning.

*Lane-keep assist.

*Reversing sensors and/or cameras.

In many used vehicles, these safety features are optional or available only on some variants, so it is important to check what’s available on the specific car you’re looking at buying.

Note that all pre-2000 vehicles provide relatively poor occupant protection. None was rated in the two best (four or five-star) categories for crashworthiness performance or awarded Safer Pick status this year.

Australia’s most popular ute, the Toyota HiLux, scored only two stars for models manufactured between 1998-2002 and 2003-2004 in the 2021 Used Car Safety Ratings and three stars for 2005-2015 models.

As with last year’s ratings, the ute category lags, but there are several five-star performers that stand out: Ford Ranger (2011-2015), Holden Colorado (2012-2019), Mazda BT-50 (2011-2015) and Volkswagen Amarok (2011-2019).

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