There has been a lot of debate for the past decade or so. Which is safer, a Volvo or a Subaru? Like many of the world’s most important debates, I’m going to jump in and settle this once and for all.
In this review, we’ll explore everything about car safety. We’ll learn what makes a car safe, compare Volvo’s and Subaru’s in these categories, and determine which brand is safer. Spoiler alert: the ending is pretty anticlimactic.
What Makes a Car Safe?
If you ask us, a car is only safe if Mr. Bean is far away from the driver’s seat. From there, you have a few different categories to look at:
- The brand’s history. A shaky history of recalls, major design flaws, and disproportionally high road fatalities is never a good thing. It takes a lot for a manufacturer’s mentality to change that dramatically and start focusing on safety out of nowhere.
- The car’s safety test results. Safety tests are an unbiased way to determine how safe a car is. A group of third-party scientists (and demolition enthusiasts) will find out how safe a car truly is through a series of repeatable tests.
- Available safety features. Safety features help everyday drivers lower their chances of an accident. If an accident does occur, these same features help to keep the driver alive.
- Vehicle weight. Inertia tells us that weight times acceleration determines how much force can be absorbed and distributed. Bigger vehicles are safer using this same idea.
- Vehicle’s top speed. The faster you go, the harder the impact hurts. It’s a bit of a stretch, but we’ll look at the top speed of these brands to see which is safer at a top-speed collision.
- Vehicle’s braking distance. You’re only as good as the brakes in your car. A better braking distance means you can avoid an accident ahead of you.
The History of the Brands
I’ll start by talking about a little history. Looking back can help us predict what the modern-day company cares about.
Volvo is a Swedish auto manufacturer that started back in 1927. Their big focus, even in the early days, was safety. This has been the case for nearly a century, and there’s no sign of them slowing down. Some of their notable vehicles across history are the ’58 PV444, ’66 140, ’85 700, and the newest Polestar 1.
What do all of these cars have in common? They’re sporty, fun to look at, and super safe to drive. Let’s not forget the bullet-proof Volvo station wagons from the ’80s that have been in so many Hallmark movies.
Subaru is a Japanese company. They first opened their doors in 1917 and in ’53 they started making cars. They’re another company that has become synonymous with safety.
Their current Forester is one of the safest cars on the road and that’s just one of the many vehicles they offer. Even though they have sporty BRZs, STIs, and Imprezas on the road, safety is always paramount.
Unlike Volvo, Subaru’s cars are flashier, faster, and have a more powerful powertrain.
Verdict on History
So, we just saw that both brands started with safety on their mind. That’s a mentality that you can’t shake loose. History has also proven that both brands stand behind their cars and are proud of their safety performance.
Learning About Safety Tests
The safety of a car isn’t about having an uncle who thinks the car is safe. It’s all about data, as far as we’re concerned. We obviously aren’t the only people who think this way, since there are two massive companies that perform a ton of safety tests each year.
The results of these tests are “tangible numbers.” A car with a 4/5 rating means that it fell a little short. Compare that to a car that achieved a 5/5 in the same category, and the first car is objectively less safe.
It’s really as simple as that. That means that we need to understand these ratings, what they test, what they mean, and who orchestrates them.
Understanding the Safety Ratings
There is a quantifiable way to determine how safe a car is. No, it isn’t how many accidents it’s been in. It’s all from tests performed in a safe environment, aptly named crash tests.
If you’ve seen a little MythBusters, you know all about crash test dummies (remember BUSTER?)
These guys are put in real-life crashes in a laboratory and then examined. Cars will go through a series of tests:
- Frontal crash. The car is sent into an aluminum barrier at 40mph, resulting in a head-on collision.
- Side crash. An SUV-like barrier is sent into the side of a stationary vehicle. The barrier is moving at 31mph.
- Roof strength. A heavy object is dropped on the top of the vehicle. Most testers use a 4.9:1 ratio of the weight to the car’s curb weight for the test. That means if the car weighs 2,000 pounds, the applied weight is 9,800 pounds.
- Front crash prevention (if sensors are involved). If the car has frontal sensors, this test is used. The car is sent into a stationary barrier at 25mph. How quickly the car stops and whether or not it crashes determines the final rating.
- Heat restraint and seats. A dummy on a car’s seat is put on a sled. The sled comes to an abrupt stop, simulating a rear-end accident. The quasi-spine and neck are inspected after the test.
- Headlights. A car is sent through five paths and the headlight distance is measured.
- LATCH. LATCH stands for Lower Anchors and Tethers for Children. This test entails seeing how much force these anchors can hold, how easy they are to use, and how accessible they are.
All of these tests have measurable outcomes that can be graded on a scale. In most tests, a score out of 5 is generated.
Who Determines These Safety Scores?
So, who’s even doing these tests? There are two major players when it comes to car safety ratings: the IIHS and the NHTSA.
All About IIHS
The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) has been around since the late ‘50s. They are funded by insurance companies like State Farm and Progressive for a simple reason: they have to decide how safe cars are.
Safer cars have less risk to insure. If there’s an accident, a safer car costs less money in medical costs. It starts to make sense why insurance companies fund them. At any rate, they have no incentive to lie about their ratings and everything is above-board with the IIHS.
They give awards to the safest cars each year.
Introducing the NHTSA
The National Highway Traffic System Administration (NHTSA) is funded by the federal government as part of the Department of Transportation. Their goal is to save lives and prevent injuries.
A lot of safety innovation was driven by the NHTSA. Since they’re federally backed, they are also non-biased and their test results are really fair.
The Bottom Line
Before moving on, I just want to make this clear: the safety data that you see advertised are all non-biased. It’s done by third parties that have no ulterior motives. They just want driver fatalities to be as low as humanly possible.
What About Safety Ratings?
The good people at U.S. News did the favor of crunching the numbers. They took the crash test results from the IIHS and NHTSA and boiled the data down to a single figure out of 10. 1/10 would be the least safe, and 10/10 would be a gold-star-winning car with safety faults.
Let’s look at the numbers and see which brand wins.
Subaru’s Safety Ratings
In 2020, Subaru took home 10 IIHS Top Safety Pick+ awards. These are reserved for the best of the best when it comes to safety.
In addition, a ton of their vehicles come standard with a number of added safety features: lane keep assist, blind-spot monitoring, lane change assist, and automatic emergency braking, to name a few.
In ’20, their average USN Safety Score was 9.69/10.
Volvo’s Safety Ratings
Volvo is no slouch when it comes to safety. Their 2020 fleet did incredibly well overall. Two of their seven available vehicles were awarded an IIHS Top Safety Pick award. Their two wagons weren’t safety tested last year, but the remaining five cars took home an IIHS award.
Every Volvo comes equipped with sensors and cameras to keep the driver safe. Things like Volvo’s Steering Support, traffic sign recognition, and adaptive cruise control come standard on many of their vehicles.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that they ranked very high in overall safety. Their average USN Safety Score was 9.90/10.
Safety Rating Winner
If you’re a statistics person, then you just got your answer. Since Volvo has a higher average Safety Score, then it is safer than Subaru.
However, it’s not that easy to say. We’re talking about a difference of 0.21 here. That equates to around a 2% difference. That’s like saying LeBron was significantly better than Kobe on a night where one scores 49 points and the other scores 50.
It’s almost too close to call. Let’s give you a little more information so you can make up your mind.
Safety Features in Each Brand
As you know, more expensive cars typically come with more features. Well, as long as you ignore the fact that a $517,000 Lamborghini Aventador SVJ Roadster doesn’t come with cup holders.
At any rate, it wouldn’t be fair to list every safety feature that’s available in every Volvo or Subaru. You’d probably find that the more expensive brand with more available cars wins that fight. Instead, let’s look at their two flagship cars:
- Volvo’s S60 T5 (MSRP from $38,950 to $50,650)
- Subaru’s WRX STI (MSRP from $37,250 to $42,000)
They’re pretty comparable on paper. Let’s find out how they stack up in the world of safety.
Safety Features in Volvo S60 Inscription ($43,000)
- WHIPS Whiplash Injury Protection System
- SIPS Side Impact Protection System
- Road Sign Information
- Oncoming Lane Mitigation
- Lane Keeping Aid
- Steer Assist
- Brakes with Hill Start Assist and Automatic Hold
- Blind Spot Information
- ABS, Traction Control, Airbags
- Cross Traffic Alert with Auto-Brake
Safety Features in Subaru WRX STI Limited ($42,000)
- Blind-Spot Detection
- Lane Change Assist
- Rear Cross-Traffic Alert
- Active Torque Vectoring
- Brake Assist
- ABS, Traction Control, Airbags
- Symmetrical All-Wheel Drive
Verdict About Safety Features
Okay, there’s one thing you’ll notice immediately. Volvo has a ton of weird names for its safety features. This is largely due to the fact that plenty of their safety features come from their in-house R&D department.
They are constantly testing ways to make their cars safer and implementing them in future generations of their cars.
At the end of the day, there are more safety features built into the S60 than the WRX.
What About Vehicle Weight?
Safety crash testing is a very important part of safety, but so is the weight of your vehicle. In the car world, Some say, “a heavier vehicle has ‘the right of weight’.”
That means that you should yield out of the way of a heavier vehicle because they win in a head-to-head collision. An 18-wheeler won’t have a dent on it after smashing through a parked car.
Heavier vehicles are also safer to get behind the wheel of. Volvo has three SUVs, two wagons, and two sedans in its 2021 lineup. Subaru has four sedans and four SUVs.
In either brand, an SUV is safer on paper than a sedan.
Consider the Top Speed
Performance is something else to consider when you’re talking about safety. When you’re going 25mph, just about any car with functioning brakes is safe.
The 2020 Subaru WRX STI goes from 0-60 MPH in 6.0 seconds
The 2020 Volvo S60 T5 goes from 0-60 MPH in 6.1 seconds
As you can see, both these vehicles are neck-in-neck when it comes to acceleration. Of course, there are different trims of these models that can significantly change these numbers.
Both these vehicles have a speed limit of 155mph which is probably due to the “governor limit.” Not that you’d want to reach those high speeds anyways.
Look At the Braking Distance
The final match-up is a braking comparison. There’s a test called a braking 60-0, sort of the opposite of a 0-60. In this test, the driver sees how long it takes the car to come to a complete stop after slamming their foot on the brake at 60mph.
Volvo’s S90 T8 does a 60-0 in 110 ft. A Subaru WRX STI takes 118 ft. A 7% difference.
Yet again, it’s too close to call.
Final Verdict: Are Volvo’s Safer Than Subaru’s?
Now that we’ve discussed both car manufacturers, it’s time to reach a conclusion on which maker makes the safer car.
After every comparison we just did, there’s still no clear winner. The only time when one car came out ahead of the other is when you compare safety features. Even then, Volvo marginally won the comparison.
If you want my honest opinions, it’s a moot point. Both Volvo and Subaru are incredibly safe brands. Trying to compare the two is like trying to decide which is wetter, milk or water.
The final verdict is that both cars are equally safe. When you look at the brand’s history, top speed, overall weight, braking distance, crash test safety results, and their history, both Volvo and Subaru are equally safe.
This is one of those times when both sides shake hands and congratulate one another. I congratulate Subaru and Volvo for putting together insanely safe cars.
I’m sorry that there was no definite winner in the matchup. Volvo’s are no safer than Subaru’s on paper — both brands are equally (and impressively) safe. If you are torn but really want a safe car, either brand will be perfect for you. For more car comparisons, check out the blog. Also, be sure to get these recommended products to have the best driving experience.