Better Safe Than Sorry: These Cars are the Most Affordable Top Safety Picks

A 2017 Kia Forte drives down the road in a rural neighborhood.
Photo courtesy of Kia Motors

U.S. traffic fatalities were at their highest in a decade last year, according to National Safety Council estimates. In total, American roadways saw 40,200 deaths in 2016, up 6% over 2015 and marking the first time the number surpassed 40,000 since 2007.

The council attributes some of this increase to the fact that there was a 3% rise in roadway traffic due to falling gas prices and an overall improving economy. Much of the blame still goes to negligence, however, with distracted driving on the rise (nine deaths per day) and drunk driving remaining a consistent problem (28 deaths per day).

Automakers are doing everything they can to make vehicles safer, innovating technologies like lane departure warning systems, adaptive cruise control and blind spot detection systems. Safety leader Volvo has even vowed that “no one should be killed or seriously injured in a new Volvo car” by 2020, though I think “should” is the operative word there.

Despite automakers’ best efforts, the safety organizations that hold them accountable are getting stricter. In recent years, for instance, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) has started evaluating automobiles’ active safety features in addition to its traditional tests and recently added a new award slotted above its Top Safety Pick designation: the Top Safety Pick+.

But for 2017, the IIHS got even tougher: In cracking down on headlight effectiveness for the first time, the nonprofit institute booted a number of perennial award winners — like the Ford F-150 — from its Top Safety Pick list.

That means for new car drivers on a budget, the list of affordable yet safe options is much more limited. If you are in the market for a new car but are working within a tight budget, make safety a top priority and consider a vehicle that actually earned a Top Safety Pick designation from the IIHS this year.

What is a Top Safety Pick Designation?

To earn a Top Safety Pick designation for 2017, a model must “earn good ratings in five crashworthiness tests — small overlap front, moderate overlap front, side, roof strength and head restraints — as well as an advanced or superior rating for front crash prevention,” according to the IIHS.

For a Top Safety Pick+ designation for 2017, a model must have the previous qualifications as well as an “acceptable” or “good” headlight rating.

So what are the most affordable cars on that 2017 IIHS list? The top five, no surprise, come from smaller vehicle segments, like minicars and small cars.

All prices reflect manufacturer’s suggested retail price for base model.

1. 2017 Toyota Yaris iA: $15,950

A 2017 Toyota Yaris iA drives down the road in a city.
Photo courtesy of Toyota

As a previous Toyota Yaris driver (I finally traded up for a Subaru Crosstrek in Hyper Blue after years of saving), I am not surprised to see the Yaris iA variant (borne out of the death of the Scion brand) top this list with a Top Safety Pick rating.

My own Yaris left a lot to be desired in terms of features and power, but it was cheap to buy and to maintain its fuel — and it still felt pretty safe on the road despite its small size.

Standard safety features include a Low-Speed Pre-Collision system, a suite of airbags and a first aid kit. The MSRP is for the manual model only; springing for an automatic bumps the price to $17,050.

2. 2017 Kia Forte: $16,600

A 2017 Kia Forte drives down the road in a rural neighborhood.
Photo courtesy of Kia Motors

Though compact, the 2017 Kia Forte offers a surprising number of standard safety features on the base model to earn its Top Safety Pick+ rating. These include Hill Start Assist Control, Vehicle Stability Management, a full suite of airbags and even Kia’s Tire Pressure Monitoring System.

The MSRP is for the manual model only; the automatic comes with a $1,000 price hike.

3. 2017 Nissan Sentra: $16,990

A photo of the interior of a 2017 Nissan Sentra.
Photo courtesy of Nissan

A sleek albeit boring sedan, the Sentra at least does an admirable job of keeping your family safe with a Top Safety Pick rating. Available safety features include Nissan’s Intelligent Safety Shield Technologies, a RearView Monitor and Smart Auto Headlights.

The base $16,990 model (S) is standard with an airbag system, a traction control system and child-safety rear locks. The MSRP is for the manual model only; the price jumps to $18,090 for the Xtronic CVT.

4. 2017 Hyundai Elantra – $17,150

The standard suite of airbags on the 2017 Elantra is comprehensive, including overhead, knee, side impact and front impact airbags. The Elantra earned a Top Safety Pick+ rating with anti-lock brakes, stability control and a security system included on the standard model.

The MSRP is for the manual model only; to go with the automatic transmission, you’ll have to cough up an extra $1,000.

5. 2017 Volkswagen Jetta – $17,895

I’ll admit, I’d be apprehensive to buy a Volkswagen after the emissions scandal of 2015 (or you know, after World War II), but I’ll hand it to VW: The Jetta is an attractively styled and priced sedan for the money.

With a Top Safety Pick+ rating, it earns high marks for safety to boot. Standard safety features include Anti-Slip Regulation, Engine Braking Assist and a passenger occupant detection system.

The MSRP is for the manual model only; the automatic version tacks on $1,100 to the price.

Most Affordable Top Safety Picks by Segment

If a minicar or small sedan isn’t suited to your lifestyle or the sheer size of your family, there are other affordable options that have made it onto this year’s list. Here are the most affordable Top Safety Picks by category (luxury categories excluded):

Minicars: 2017 Toyota Yaris iA: $15,590

Small Cars: 2017 Kia Forte: $16,600

Midsize Cars: 2017 Volkswagen Jetta: $17,895

Large Cars: 2017 Kia Cadenza: $31,990

Small SUVs: 2017 Mazda CX-3: $19,960

Large SUVs: 2017 Audi Q7: $49,000 (only large SUV to earn a Top Safety Pick for 2017)

Minivans: 2017 Kia Sedona: $26,900 (one of two minivans to earn a Top Safety Pick for 2017)

Large Pickups: 2017 Honda Ridgeline: $29,475 (only large pickup to earn a Top Safety Pick for 2017)

Timothy Moore, a Nashville-based editor and writer, has written for the automotive industry for five years. He currently drives a Hyper Blue 2017 Subaru Crosstrek and wouldn’t trade it for the world, but maybe for a Tesla.