What are the safest used cars? Well, that depends on how much money you have to spend, but since the average used car sells for around $15,000, we figured that was a pretty good place to start.
So, how do we define "safe?" Really, virtually every car sold within at least the last five years could be described as such, with a multitude of airbags and electronic aids like stability control stuffed into even the cheapest subcompacts.
However, to identify the best of the best, we looked to crash scores. Specifically, we're interested in vehicles that achieved a perfect five stars in the government's three main crash protection categories: overall, frontal and side. In most cases, we stuck with scores attained after 2011 when the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) enacted tougher testing requirements.
In order to add a more diverse selection of vehicles (including SUVs, minivans and luxury models), we included some choices that got all fives in NHTSA's previous, less rigorous testing, but made sure in those cases they were also named Top Safety Picks by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety — the other entity that conducts crash tests and whose process includes some tests, such as the small overlap frontal test, that the government program does not.
From there, we simply identified those five-star cars that could realistically be purchased for $15,000 without sky-high miles and which have enough inventory to make them widely available. The model years specified indicate those years that satisfy both our crash-test and price threshold.
Buick LaCrosse (2011-'13)
Since being redesigned for 2011, the LaCrosse has impressed with its refined road manners and high-quality cabin. There are plenty of them available for around $15,000 with reasonably low mileage.
Chevrolet Cruze (2011-'15)
The Chevrolet Cruze has never been an all-around class leader, but it's a capable, well-equipped compact sedan that also happens to have aced the government's frontal and side crash tests every year it's been on sale. Finding an ideal one for $15,000 should be easy.
Ford Taurus (2013-'14)
A refresh for 2013 brought the Taurus up to the required perfect five stars in NHTSA testing, and indeed, everything about driving this large sedan exudes a sense of safety and solidity. Most available for $15,000 are on the high-mileage side, but there should be plenty available.
Honda CR-V (2012)
Model year 2012 was the first year for the present-generation Honda CR-V. Although subsequent model years also got top crash scores, they're still too expensive. Considering that the CR-V is the best-selling SUV, you should have no trouble finding a 2012 model.
Find a Honda CR-V in your area.
Honda Odyssey (2006-'10)
Although this Odyssey was also crash tested using the previous government crash standards, it performed better than its contemporaries and was an IIHS Top Safety Pick. The succeeding-generation Odyssey, introduced for 2011, did achieve top crash scores in the current NHTSA testing regimen, but at present most of them are generally priced above $15,000.
Honda Pilot (2006-'08)
This Honda Pilot received five stars in each of the government's previous crash categories, and although those were less stringent than the present ones, this Pilot also was named a Top Safety Pick by the IIHS. Furthermore, we thought it was important to choose a three-row crossover given their popularity among car shoppers. We left off earlier years of this generation due to them being much cheaper than $15,000.
Kia Optima (2011-'14)
Since being redesigned for 2011, the Kia Optima has achieved five stars in the government's overall, frontal and side crash tests. Even the most basic trim levels of this handsome midsize sedan come very equipped, so finding a good one for $15,000 should be easy.
Kia Sportage (2011-'14)
Besides the CR-V listed above, the Sportage is the only compact SUV to meet both of our crash score and pricing thresholds — plus, multiple model years qualify. Beyond that, the Sportage is stylish, pleasant to drive and packed with features regardless of trim level.
Nissan Altima (2013-'15)
This Nissan Altima is an Edmunds "A"-rated family sedan, which makes it one of the best of these top choices. The fact that you can pick up so many for around $15,000 should make your car shopping that much easier.
Volkswagen Passat (2012-'14)
This Volkswagen Passat provides an enormous backseat and trunk, a highly refined driving experience and of course, very strong crash scores. We found plenty of them for around $15,000 with surprisingly low miles.
Volvo S60 (2012-'13)
If you're looking for the safest luxury sedan for $15,000, the Volvo S60 from these years is your best bet. Besides earning top crash scores like everything else on this list, it also came standard with an automatic collision avoidance and mitigation system. There's a chance certain used models may also include additional, optional crash-avoidance aids.
Volvo XC90 (2007-'10)
The 2007-'10 XC90 predates NTHSA's current, more stringent government crash testing procedures, but it received top scores under the previous NHTSA procedures and also is an IIHS Top Safety Pick. For $15,000, this is the safest luxury SUV available in realistic numbers.