Advertiser Disclosure

Why Safer Cars Might Not Save You a Dime on Car Insurance

Dec. 21, 2015
Auto Insurance, Insurance
Many or all of the products featured here are from our partners who compensate us. This may influence which products we write about and where and how the product appears on a page. However, this does not influence our evaluations. Our opinions are our own.

If you want to protect yourself and your passengers on the road, it makes sense to choose a car with stellar safety ratings. But a prestigious safety award doesn’t necessarily translate into lower car insurance premiums.

It might seem counterintuitive, but the safety of a vehicle for its passengers is only a small factor among many that influence car insurance premiums.

Other factors that are likely to be more significant are:

  • The market value of the car: Generally the pricier the car is, the more expensive it will be to insure. Assuming you buy collision and comprehensive insurance, the insurance company will be on the hook to pay out the car’s market value if it’s totaled or stolen.
  • The cost of repairing the car: Today’s vehicles, especially more upscale models, are often made with specialized materials and unique components that can be expensive to repair and replace. That drives up the cost of comprehensive and collision, which cover damage from accidents, storms and vandalism.
  • The history of the vehicle with other drivers: Insurance companies consider each model’s performance in the real world, which partly depends on the typical driver. That’s why minivans are usually cheap to insure: They are used mostly by parents toting kids around.

Compare car insurance quotes with NerdWallet’s car insurance comparison tool.

To find out whether safer cars might save money on car insurance, we compared three pairs of 2015 car models. The vehicles in each pair are about the same size and are priced similarly. Each car was put through all five of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety’s tough crash tests. Of each pair, one car won the Top Safety Pick or Top Safety Pick+ award, the institute’s highest honors. The other car did not win such recognition.

In one case, the top safety pick qualified for average insurance rates that were 10.5% below the less-safe comparison model. But the safer car was also quite a bit less expensive to buy.

In the other two cases, the safer car was actually slightly more expensive to insure, by an average of 2%.

“Most of the IIHS tests evaluate the safety of a vehicle in high-speed, severe crashes. But severe crashes make up a relatively small part of all the crashes insurers pay for,” says Russ Rader, the institute’s senior vice president of communications. “The crashes that cost insurers the most are the more routine, low-speed fender benders that happen in everyday commuter traffic.”

Although long-term trends show the number of car insurance claims are going down, the cost of claims is going up.

“Vehicles are more complex,” Rader says. “They have a lot of expensive parts, and those parts, like expensive fenders, headlights and power train components, are vulnerable in low-speed crashes.”

You might have many reasons to want a car with a top-notch safety rating, but cheaper car insurance is not an outcome you should expect.

What it takes to win

To win the IIHS Top Safety Pick award, a vehicle must earn good ratings in four crash tests. Those evaluate:

  • Roof strength
  • Performance of head restraints and seats to protect occupants from whiplash
  • Protection of occupants when 40% of the front of the car crashes into an object
  • Protection when the vehicle is hit from the side

The vehicle also must earn a good or acceptable rating in the “front small overlap” test, which mimics when the front corner of the car crashes into another object.

To win the Top Safety Pick+ award, a vehicle must meet the Top Safety Pick criteria and earn an advanced or superior rating for front-crash prevention. That is possible only if the car is available with automatic braking and forward-collision warning systems that meet government performance requirements.

We ran insurance quotes for each car for California drivers. We got quotes from the top 10 car insurance companies in the Golden State and averaged the lowest three quotes. Here’s what we found.

Mini cars: Chevrolet Spark vs. Hyundai Accent

Car IIHS safety award winner? Average low annual premium Manufacturer suggested retail price
2015 Chevrolet Spark Top Safety Pick $1,124 $12,170
2015 Hyundai Accent No $1,257 $14,745

The Chevrolet Spark four-door hatchback scored a good rating in four crash tests and an acceptable rating for the small-overlap crash test, earning the IIHS Top Safety Pick award.

The Hyundai Accent earned good scores for three crash tests, but a poor rating for the small overlap test and an acceptable rating for the side crash test.

The award-winning Spark nabbed lower average car insurance rates. The average quote for the Accent is almost 12% higher than for the Spark. The Accent is also 20% more expensive that the Spark, which could be a factor in its higher insurance rates.

Small cars: Subaru Impreza vs. Mazda 5

Car IIHS safety award winner? Average low premium Manufacturer suggested retail price
Subaru Impreza Top Safety Pick+ $1,242 $18,195
Mazda5 No $1,198 $22,285

The Subaru Impreza four-door sedan earned the Top Safety Pick+ award, earning good scores for all five crash tests and offering superior front crash prevention equipment.

The Mazda5 small minivan earned good scores for one of the front crash tests and for roof strength, but got a poor score for the front small overlap crash test, a marginal score for the side crash test and an acceptable score for the head restraints and seats test. Front crash prevention is not available.

Despite the Mazda5’s lower safety scores and higher retail price, average car insurance quotes were actually lower for the minivan than for the Subaru sedan.

Large luxury cars: Volvo S80 vs. Lincoln MKS

Car IIHS safety award winner Average low premium Manufacturer Suggested Retail Price
Volvo S80 Top Safety Pick+ $1,514 $46,840
Lincoln MKS No $1,494 $44,485

The Volvo S80 four-door sedan got the Top Safety Pick+ award, earning good scores in all five crash tests and providing superior front crash prevention equipment.

The Lincoln MKS four-door sedan got good scores for four crash tests and a poor score in the small overlap crash test. The vehicle features basic front crash prevention equipment.

Our quote comparison shows a difference of only $20 in the average low premium for the two cars.

Even if a top safety rating doesn’t make a car cheaper to insure, it’s still an important point to consider as you shop for a vehicle. After all, your life and the lives of your passengers are worth it. NerdWallet’s car insurance comparison tool can help you get started comparing quotes for vehicles.

Methodology: NerdWallet analyzed car insurance quotes from 10 major carriers in 10 ZIP codes in California for 30-year-old men and women drivers. Quotes are for liability injury limits of $100,000 per person and $300,000 per accident, and property damage liability of up to $50,000, plus collision and comprehensive with a $500 deductible. Price for new cars is manufacturer’s suggested retail price for the base model. Rates shown are the average of the three lowest quotes from insurers. Your own rates will be different.

Barbara Marquand is a staff writer at NerdWallet, a personal finance website. Email: [email protected]. Twitter: @barbaramarquand.

Image via iStock.