When it comes to buying a car for first-time drivers, are cheap and safe mutually exclusive?

ALTHOUGH FEWER kids are learning to drive than back in my day, there are still plenty of them attaching L-plates to cars… And once they’ve ‘done their time’, then they want their own car, which us, as parents, want to be as safe as possible, so naturally we look towards ANCAP to provide some guidance. And that guidance would be – buy a 5-star car. However, there’s a bit more to it than that.

First, not all 5-star ANCAP rated cars are equal, not by a long shot.

Let’s take two 2017-rated cars; the Suzuki Swift and AMG A45. As you can imagine, the considerably more expensive AMG has features the Swift does not – blind spot monitoring, lane departure warning, forwards and rear parking sensors. On other Mercedes models build there’s clever safety tech, such as, seats that move the occupant away from the doors just before impact. These features are not properly accounted for in the current ANCAP rating system, so, as a general rule the more expensive 5-star cars in any given year are safer than the cheaper ones, even though both score the same safety rating.


And there’s another complication too – the 5-star rating changes from year to year. That means a car which was rated 5-star in say 2003 probably wouldn’t make 5-star if it was retested in 2017. Here’s a table showing how the 5-star minimum criteria has changed since 2011:


We have a full explanation of the table above and the ANCAP ratings here.

There’s also a big difference between a three and five star car. The title image shows part of the difference, and we’ve got more on that here.

Summary so far – not all 5-star cars are equal, and a 5-star car from yesteryear has had to meet lower standards than one in the current year.

Now for more confusion. Here is the Holden Astra’s report for the model introduced in 2004:

The Astra scores a healthy 5 stars which on crashworthiness alone would place it into a 5-star rating even in 2017, as the pass mark remains 32.5.

But then there’s this:

The same car scores a measly two on the Used Car Safety Report (UCSR). Now this is also a rating out of 5 stars, but it’s against completely different critiera to the ANCAP safety ratings. The UCSR looks at TAC claims records and police reports for crashes where someone was kiled or seriously injured, and it is adjusted for driver sex, age, speed zone and other factors. You can read more about the two Astra reports on ANCAP here.

So what do you, the concerned parent do?

  • Buy the safest car you can – Use the ANCAP 5-star as a guide, but look beyond the simple rating to what extra safety gear the car offers, and in general newer cars are safer than older. However, what matters most is the design. A 2017 model car based on a 2005 design is likely to be less safe than a 2014 car based on a 2013 design. The most important safety features are curtain (side) airbags and stability control. Also, different trims levels of have usually have different safety features, for example several years ago stability control was not typically fitted to all models. Be very precise about the car you buy:
  • Invest in post-license training – Read more about that here. Many driving schools are focused on passing the test as quickly as possible, which is not the same as delivering quality training.
  • Do lots of training – not only post-license, but events like the Ford Driving Skills for Life programme.
  • Don’t skimp on the safety basics – Ensure the tyres are now worn or el cheapies, and they are less than five years old as old tyres kill.
  • Make sure the kids understand the basics of cars – Tyre pressures, how to clean windscreens and headlights, replacing fuses, how to handle a puncture.
  • Set a good example yourself and remember that your own skills probably need updating.

Further reading


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1 comment

  1. There’s a lot to be said for driving defensively and keeping your car well maintained…gives you and the car’s driver aids (if fitted) the best chance of avoiding, or at the very least reducing the impact speed of, an accident should the potential for one occur….

    The current ANCAP system seems to be aimed more st the vehicle’s ability to protect you in a crash, not helping you avoid it in the first place…..though it is improving with an increased focus on driver aids like AEB….having a separate rating system for accident avoidance capability would be a good idea IMO….

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