It’s one of those watershed moments – having passed their test, your son or daughter drives away from home on their own for the very first time.
Of course you know that today’s cars are much safer than the rusting lump you drove in your early days behind the wheel, and you might even admit that your child is a more careful driver than you were at their age. But you’re still nervous.
The best you can do is ensure that the car they drive is one of the safest that you, or you plus they, can afford. But what are the principal aspects to concentrate on if that’s what you’re looking for. Manufacturers love to list the acronyms, but is ESC more vital than ABS?
There’s an old saying that the best safety device on any car would be a really cheap one: simply a sharp spike sticking out of the steering wheel pointed towards the driver. Try to imagine how you’d drive with that.
In the real world, we prefer the ever-increasing supply of electronic aids. It’s easy to go overboard in analysing the benefits of the multitude of safety systems on today’s motors, but broadly speaking, the more you’ve got the merrier. As time passes, many of them become standard fitments, like ABS (anti-lock brakes); by law, all new cars must now have this great safety aid which prevents wheels locking up under braking, so the driver can still steer while the system slows the car as best it can.
For economic reasons, your offspring’s first car is probably going to be a fairly small one, so safety ratings are even more important; all else being equal, the larger the car the safer it is. So we’ve been looking at four cars, one size up from the smallest, all of which score well for safety, though please note these are by no means the only ones.
Measuring safety is a complex and vastly expensive business, so for independent testing we turn to the European New Car Assessment Programme, Euro NCAP for short. The mass of checks they undertake includes crash testing, but for a full explanation visit their website: www.euroncap.com.
The score is broken down into separate figures for adult and child protection in the car, plus pedestrian protection outside. There’s also a column for ‘Safety Assist’, which marks the effectiveness of the electronic safety equipment aids.
Our first car, the Chevrolet Aveo, has the lowest base price of these four cars, yet scored higher for adult protection than any of the others, and my guess is that most parents would put that factor at the top of the list. Take a look at the Euro NCAP tests and you’ll find a picture of the adult in question, with their various parts coloured to indicate the degree of protection. On the Aveo they’re almost all green, with just a couple of yellow areas. The safety assist was boosted by ESC (Electronic Stability Control) being standard across the range.
ESC is really as great a step forward for car safety as was ABS, for whilst rally drivers and their ilk can cope with a car going sideways into a corner – indeed for maximum control they cause it to do so – most drivers, and especially new ones, will freeze when it happens. ESC, or ESP (electronic stability programme) as it’s often known, will work to prevent it occurring by reducing engine power and braking individual wheels. By November 2014, it will be compulsory on all new cars sold.
Ford’s new Fiesta, like our other three, has ESC fitted as standard. More unusually it features MyKey, which is a safety package aimed particularly at owners who share their car with their children. Essentially, the keys supplied with the car are programmed by the user to allow a different set of parameters and limits. Your son’s key could for example limit his top speed and keep the radio down to 45 per cent of maximum volume.
From the list of options you can choose to create a persistent belt-minder chime that will remind everyone to belt up, or you can prevent both the parking sensors and the traction control from being turned off. It’s all a bit Big Brother of course, but many parents would believe that was a price worth paying for their children’s safety and some extra peace of mind.
Suzuki’s Swift scores almost as well for adult protection as does the Aveo. There are a few more yellow areas when looking at the driver’s body, notably the feet and lower left leg, but the passenger’s head, chest and legs are all green, and therefore well protected. Euro NCAP tests include side impacts, and this is subdivided into collisions with another car, and with a pole of ten inches in diameter.
In this test on the Swift, an adult’s chest was scored as yellow, which is ‘adequate’, but against the post they rated it ‘marginal’. However, for rear end collisions the neck is marked green, which is ‘good’, though it’s important to remember that maximum protection from whiplash relies on head restraints being positioned at the right height to contact the head; don’t just leave them at the lowest setting.
The Audi A1 is the most expensive vehicle we’re looking at here, and its adult protection score is by a whisker the least impressive. There are a couple of ‘marginal’ scores here – the chest in a side impact with a car, and whiplash rating in the event of a rear end collision. It does however score well in the Safety Assist department, partly on account of the universal fitment of ESC, but also due to the seatbelt warning system that covers both front and rear seats, and for which it got top marks.
The A1 would have got close to the Aveo’s score but for a speed limiter not being fitted on all models (though it was on ours); these are usually simple systems that emit an audible warning if the vehicle speed exceeds a set limit.
Whatever car you do consider for your child, have a look first at its Euro NCAP rating. And limiting the search to those like our four here, which all get five stars, is a sensible way to start.