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The least-safe cars of 2006

Crash results point out two not-so-surprising facts: cheap equals less safe, and you really, really need to order side airbags.

By Forbes.com

The least-safe cars on the market are like the least-safe neighborhoods in a big city: affordable, but not pretty.

With an average base price of $15,323 and no prices higher than $19,555, the six least-safe cars on the market come from companies Forbes.com does not ordinarily cover, such as Hyundai, Kia and Suzuki.

Some models from these brands -- which are hardly for social climbers -- satisfy bargain hunters but require them to take their chances with personal safety.

Hyundai's Elantra, Kia's Optima and Suzuki's Forenza sedans -- like the other vehicles in the slide show -- achieved ratings of "poor," the lowest possible, in two of three Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) crash tests (all the cars received their failing grades on the side- and rear-impact tests).

Not all new cars have crash-test scores available, but many do, and here are the six with the worst crashworthiness.

 
The least-safe cars of 2006

Vehicle

Vehicle

Hyundai Elantra

Nissan Sentra

Kia Optima

Suzuki Forenza

Mazda6

Toyota Corolla

Who decides what's safe

In matters of automotive safety, we typically consult the U.S. Department of Transportation's National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) -- and we recommend car shoppers do, too. But for a list of the least-safe cars, we felt the IIHS would be a better source, because it seems less sparing of its worst marks than NHTSA.

Most cars in NHTSA's crash tests achieve ratings of three stars or higher on tests in which five stars is the top rating, but the IIHS does not hesitate to hand out ratings of "poor" when cars merit them. NHTSA gives out the occasional sub-three-star rating, but a three-star rating tends to be as low as it goes.

To be sure we were on steady ground in calling certain cars "unsafe," we fashioned our list out of cars that received multiple "poor" ratings from the IIHS. Both a list of cars with only one "poor" rating and a list of cars with one or more three-star ratings from NHTSA would have been unwieldy, with over 20 cars each.

Two trends to watch

The list of unsafe cars points to two trends. First, the least-safe cars are cheap. However, some luxury cars have subpar crash-test scores. The Jaguar X-Type sedan from Ford Motor and the Infiniti G35 and M model lines from Nissan Motor received one "poor" rating each, which was alarming but not enough to merit placement on our list.

Some 2006-model luxury cars have also had safety recalls already. For example, DaimlerChrysler's redesigned Mercedes-Benz M-Class SUV has been recalled for a faulty power steering system, as has the Cadillac Escalade SUV from General Motors. However, we did not feel that a car with one safety recall was necessarily unsafe, and there is, as of now, no bank of 2006-model cars with multiple safety recalls.

The other trend is that side airbags, though frequently optional, should be mandatory. The IIHS often gives "poor" side-impact crash-test scores to vehicles tested without optional side airbags. Add side airbags in a side-impact test and a vehicle's score can go from the lowest possible to the second highest possible. But some vehicles, such as the Hyundai Elantra, manage to achieve "poor" side-impact scores despite having standard side bags.

Safety features are like luxury features in cars: the higher your budget, the more of them you will get. (To see 2005's safest cars, click here.)

By Dan Lienert, Forbes.com

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