The 5 Safest Used Cars You Can Buy For Under $20,000

“I’m looking to get a new used car; I want something safe, though I have a budget of $20,000. What would you recommend?” This is a common question among the car buying public. Here I list what are in my opinion, the top five safest used cars that typically sell for under $20,000.

Over the last decade there have been significant advances in driver assistance and collision avoidance technology, which have helped bring the cost and complexity of these systems down. These potentially life-saving safety features once found exclusively in high-line luxury vehicles, are now able to be added as relatively low-cost options on everyday economy cars. Features like backup cameras, automatic braking, lane assist technology and intelligent cruise control, as well as a host of others, are actively making driving a car a safer experience. In fact, very recently the IIHS reported that 20 of the world’s largest automakers, making up 99% of the US automotive market, committed to make virtually all of their new cars come standard with automatic emergency braking by model year 2022.

Of course, even as the prices fall, getting a brand new car equipped with these options is very likely to cost you more than $20k. This brings us to the used car market. There are a host of awesome, safe, reliable 2- to 5-year-old cars that have some of these features, and carry a Kelley Blue Book (KBB) value of under $20k. With such a large market of cars, it was hard to pick just 5 of them. I looked at several different criteria: crash test data and safety ratings, consumer reports, owner feedback, plus I went back to my own experience with these vehicles.

Note: Safety ratings came from the U.S. Department of Transportation’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) which gives a top rating of 5 stars, and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) that gives the highest rating of Top Safety Pick+, which is only awarded with the (+) if the vehicle has forward collision prevention. To ensure you have a variety of choices, I selected 3 standard sedans, 1 “green” car, and one luxury SUV.

2013-2014 Subaru Legacy with the optional moonroof package

2013 Subaru Legacy
2013 Subaru Legacy
  • Mid-size 4-door sedan

  • 2013 and 2014 IIHS Top Safety Pick+ for superior optional collision warnings

  • 5-Star Overall Safety Rating from NHTSA

Subaru is well known for their symmetrical all-wheel drive system that has come standard on nearly all their models for the last 25 or so years. They are also working to stay ahead of the competition with their EyeSight driver assistance and collision avoidance system. This was available as an option with the moonroof equipped Legacy’s beginning in the US in 2013. As of 2015, the Subaru Legacy was one of only 9 models listed with the IIHS the has zero reported fatalities. Fuji Heavy Industries, parent company of Subaru, stated that Subaru models sold in Japan with the EyeSight system have been involved in 60% less crashes than those without it. Subaru’s unibody structure was designed in such a way that it provides a smooth stable ride, while absorbing much of the impact in a collision and passing along less to the driver and passengers. The standard all-wheel drive makes this a great choice for someone living in an area where snowy or slick roads are a common occurrence.

2013-2014 Honda Accord

2014 Honda Accord
2014 Honda Accord
  • Mid-size 4 door sedan

  • 2013 and 2014 IIHS Top Safety Pick +

  • 5-Star Overall Safety Rating from NHTSA

  • Car and Driver 10 Best Cars Award 2013 and 2014

Well known for long life and legendary reliability, the Honda Accord is now famous for another thing: safety. Starting in 2013, Accords came standard with a rear backup camera, and were made available with a host of other options. It was one of the first standard sedans to offer forward collision avoidance and lane departure warnings. Your best bet is to find one with both of these options, as they have been proven by the Highway Loss Data Institute analysis to reduce insurance claims.

2014 Ford Fusion

2014 Ford Fusion


2014 Ford Fusion

  • Mid size 4 door sedan

  • 2014 IIHS Top Safety Pick+

  • 5-Star Overall Safety Rating from NHTSA

  • Kelley Blue Book named the 2014 Ford Fusion among the 10 Best Sedans Under $25,000 for 2014.

The 2014 Ford Fusion may be the lowest price sedan in this top five, but don’t let that fool you into thinking you are getting any less car. The Ford Fusion is a great car to drive and is more technology rich than most other cars at this price point. It's available as an EcoBoost or as a hybrid model, making it an economical choice in the long run as well. Though none of the advanced features come standard, there are several options available: lane departure system, cross traffic alert, blind spot detection, active park assist and a rearview camera. It also had the option of inflatable rear seat belts, which inflate when in a collision to minimize damage done by the seat belt.

2014 Chevy Volt

2014 Chevy Volt
2014 Chevy Volt
  • 4 door compact plug in hybrid vehicle

  • 2014 IIHS Top Safety Pick+ 2014

  • 5-Star Overall Safety Rating from NHTSA

Although the Toyota Prius has become the ubiquitous hybrid vehicle, the Chevy Volt made quite a splash when it was first introduced. With a battery only range of 38 miles and a 37 mpg rating when using the small gasoline engine, the Chevy Volt combines the best of both worlds. Throw in a Top Safety Pick+ rating from the IIHS and a higher 5 star rollover rating than the Toyota Prius, and you have a car that's easy on both the environment and your passengers. Available options include rearview camera, parking assist, lane departure warning and forward collision alert systems.

2012/2013 Volvo XC60

2013 Volvo XC60
2013 Volvo XC60
  • Compact crossover luxury SUV

  • 2012 IIHS Top Safety Pick and 2013 Top Safety Pick+

  • 5-Star Overall Safety Rating from NHTSA

Volvo has always been synonymous with safety. In recent years they have produced cars that not only are among the safest, but that look fantastic as well. Volvo was one of the first manufacturers to offer automatic emergency braking, even before the IIHS introduced the (+) rating for cars with collision avoidance. Every XC60 model comes equipped with the City Safety system, which automatically brakes the car when the driver fails to, including if the vehicle detects a pedestrian in the roadway thanks to the pedestrian detection also included with every XC60.

It's important to note that not all XC60 models are equipped with all-wheel drive; some are front-wheel drive only. If you live somewhere with snow on a regular basis, it may be worthwhile to shell out the extra money to get the all-wheel drive model. It’s also worth noting that the City Safety system worked at speeds 19 mph and below on 2012 models, and increased to 32 mph and below for 2013 models.

So there they are, my top 5 favorites in the safe used car under $20k market. Though this list is not inclusive of all cars under $20k incorporating this technology, it should serve as a guide for one looking to buy a car in this field. More cars will get into this price range within the next few years, as these technologies continue to trickle down from higher end cars to the less expensive cars.

The important thing to remember is that the biggest limitation to these driver assistance systems, is the driver. Take the time to read about and thoroughly understand any and all safety features that your car is equipped with. If there is something you just don’t understand, feel free to contact us and we would be happy to help you understand it. Have a pre-purchase inspection performed before buying; during your ownership, make sure your car stays properly maintained. Have any issues you notice diagnosed as soon as possible to ensure all the systems are properly working at all times.

A note on prices: Of course it should be noted, that prices and availability of cars will vary greatly across the country and even from city to city in some cases. For the Kelley Blue Book values, I used a Los Angeles zip code and looked at private party sales values in good or higher condition. KBB values were checked on 8/1/16.

The statements expressed above are only for informational purposes and should be independently verified. Please see our terms of service for more details

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