Safest, Most Fun-To-Drive 2003 Vehicles (with manual transmissions)

Much info is now available to update this page, but I am instead creating a new table focusing on sport sedans. You might want to pop-up to the higher level page.

This is a discussion of manual-transmission, 2003-model-year vehicles available in the US that are some of the most promising such vehicles from a safety perspective, with a bias towards those that are also fun to drive. These vehicles also represent some of the safest, most fun-to-drive vehicles available with automatic transmissions, but the list is not as comprehensive in that category.

All vehicles on the list are available as 2003 models in configurations that have manual transmissions, 4 doors, side torso airbags, side head airbags, ABS, traction control, and stability control. If a vehicle is not available with all of these together, it is not included (e.g., the Lexus IS300 is available with a manual transmission or stability control, but not both together). It is a shame that advanced safety features like head airbags and stability control have not trickled down into a larger number of more affordable vehicles yet, but it is happening slowly. While it wasn't required to make the list, all vehicles on the list also have seat belt pretensioners and load limiters for the front seat occupants.

Note: If you want to see the whole table without scrolling but can't, you can try setting your font smaller in your browser preferences.

specs other safety features crash tests and injury stats [1] reliability price (on 11/30/02)
vehicle [2] weight (lbs.) height (inches) ground clearance (inches) drive wheels EBD brake assist telematics (accident alert) active head restraints IIHS head (1-4) IIHS front (1-4) (cm) [3] EU front (1-100) NHTSA front (1-5) (HIC,g) [4] EU side (1-100) NHTSA side (1-5) (TTI,g) [5] NHTSA rollover resistance (SSF) (1-5) IIHS injury claim rates JD Power initial mech quality (1-5) JD Power midterm mech reliability (1-5) CR reliability Edmunds TMV ($) CD price ($) configuration (for prices and weight)
BMW X5 3.0i 4533 67.5 (or 66.1 to 68.5 [6] 7.1 (or 5.7 to 8.1 [6]) AWD yes yes expensive [7] no 3 4 BP (41) [8] 81% n/a 100% [9] n/a [9] n/a [10] 58% 4 2 -100% 43,317 42,395 sport, PDC, xenons, Oxford green
Audi A4 1.8T avant 3516 56.2 4.2 AWD yes yes On-star no n/a 4 BP (58) 75% n/a (coming soon) 100% 5 (39,40) 4 (1.42) n/a 3 n/a -40% 32,077 [11] 31,651 [11] sport, xenons, On-star, prem, Atlas grey
Volvo S60 R [12] 3571 56.2 n/a AWD yes no no yes 4 4 (102) 63% 4 (502, 52), 4 (399, 47) 100% 5 (49,67) n/a 58% 3 n/a +19% [13] n/a n/a n/a
Volvo V70 R [12] 3757 58.7 n/a AWD yes yes no yes n/a [14] n/a [15] 42% 3 2 +1% [13] n/a n/a n/a
BMW 325xi wagon 3594 56.3 n/a AWD yes yes expensive [7] no 3 4 BP (107) 63% 4 (505, 44), 5 (241, 44) 83% n/a 4 (1.41) 73% 4 2 -23% 33,877 32,669 xenons, full spare, steel gray
Saab 9-3 Linear 3250 56.8 n/a FWD yes yes On-star yes n/a [14] n/a 81% [16] n/a 100% [16] n/a n/a n/a n/a n/a n/a 26,948 27,225 sport, dolphin grey
Saab 9-5 Linear 3470 57 n/a FWD yes no On-star yes 4 4 BP (108) 81% 5 (332, 42), 5 (348, 45) 100% n/a n/a 53% 3 2 +33% 33,456 29,137 no options, steel grey
VW Passat 3212 57.6 5.8 FWD no no no no 2 4 BP (139) 75% 5 (377, 44), 5 (318, 41) 89% 4 (66,87) n/a 80% 3 3 +10% 21,720 21,254 ESP, silverstone gray
BMW 525i 3450 56.5 n/a RWD yes yes expensive [7] no 4 4 BP (103) 75% n/a 78% n/a n/a 68% 5 3 +12% 38,180 37,768 xenons, topaz blue
VW Jetta GL-1.8T 2974 56.7 5.2 FWD yes only on GLI no no 2 or 3 4 (160) n/a 5 (373, 42), 5 (306, 42) n/a 4 (59,63) 4 (1.37) 102% 3 2 -59% 18,930 19,019 ESP, galactic blue
Table footnotes:

  1. In assessing the relative importance of different crash tests, note that approximately 48% of collision impacts are frontal, 24% are offset frontal, 24% are side, and the other 4% are rear. Also, for frontal tests the IIHS and EU offset tests are harder than the NHTSA flat test, and many vehicles do well on the NHTSA test but poorly on the IIHS or EU test, but most vehicles that do well on the IIHS or EU test also do well on the NHTSA test. For injury stats, there is a slight sample bias in terms of the kinds of vehicles good vs. bad drivers typically buy.
  2. Several of the vehicles are available as either sedans or wagons (and in some cases hatchbacks). Weight and price are the columns most significantly affected by the choice. I've chosen sedan or wagon, along with trim level, so that the vehicle meets the requirements of being in the list but otherwise arbitrarily according to my preferences for each vehicle, just to get concrete numbers. By all means, run the numbers again to fit your own preferences.
  3. IIHS's frontal offset crash rating (1-4) is provided. BP indicates a "best pick" designation by IIHS. In addition, a simple numerical score (in cm) is computed from IIHS's intrusion measurements as follows: sum of the 4 footwell measurements plus the brake pedal measurement plus 3 times the max of the steering wheel upward or rearward movement plus 3 times the sum of the instrument panel movements and A-pillar movement. I came up with this function based on the 3-to-1 ratio of thresholds in one of the PDF files explaining their ratings.
  4. NHTSA's front crash ratings for driver and then passenger are provided, including the head injury criterion (HIC) and chest deceleration (in g) for each.
  5. NHTSA's side front occupant crash rating (1-5) is provided, including the specific Thoracic Trauma Index (TTI) and pelvis deceleration (in g).
  6. The BMW X5's adjustable ride height option allows the vehicle to lower 35mm or raise 25mm from the default height.
  7. The BMW telematics system requires the purchase of several other options costing several thousands of dollars.
  8. The X5 had the best crash test scores ever recorded on the IIHS offset frontal crash test.
  9. The X5 also did well in a special side impact pole test conducted by the IIHS. The pole test is in some ways harder than typical side crash tests.
  10. The X5 has a low center-of-gravity compared with most SUVs, and is thus less likely to roll. See my page on the safety of the X5.
  11. A4 price includes an additional $400 for the imminent price increase of the premium package for the new power seats with lumbar.
  12. The R high performance AWD versions of the Volvo S60 and V70 are the only vehicles on this list not yet available, but according to, both the S60R and V70R will be available in winter 2003.
  13. The R (AWD) versions of the Volvo S60 and V70 will have different engine tunings and several new technologies that other S60s/V70s will not have and that might drive the reliability down below other S60s/V70s.
  14. The head restraints in the Volve V70 should be the same as those in the S60, and the head restraints in the Saab 9-3 should be the same as those in the 9-5. Thus, both should be good.
  15. The Volve V70 is essentially a wagon version of the S60, so crash test scores should be similar.
  16. The Saab 9-3 is one of only 6 vehicles (only 3 of which are available in the US) ever to receive 5 stars from the European NCAP (New Car Assesment Program) crash tests.

Some models are not included because other vehicles on the list are similar enough and superior enough to be clearly preferrable:

Note, I plan to update this page at some point to include handling and other performance information.

More detailed discussions about each promising model:

Biggest problems are horrible reliability and high price. Minor complaints: Telematics system (BMW Mayday system) is not stardard, is too expensive an option, and doesn't work as well as other telematics systems (see X5 board), or at least the NAV system doesn't and it isn't clear to me how much the Mayday system costs as an option or whether the NAV system is required (the NAV system is way too expensive). There should be a 6th gear on the manual transmission. The adjustable ride height option should lower at high speeds to have lower center-of-gravity, but it raises to the default height at higher speeds (unlike the Range Rover, allroad, and Touareg/Cayenne). Would be nice to have more crash test results. Would be nice for the side airbags to have sensors for occupants in deployment path.

Bottom line: The X5 seems to be the only SUV with stability control, head airbags, and a manual transmission (if you don't count the Audi allroad as an SUV, or the only one with all those things and good crash test scores even if you do count the allroad). Even if you don't care about a manual transmission, there is no other vehicle that is as heavy or as tall (for visibility) but that nonetheless handles and brakes as well as the X5, though the Cayenne may change that (for twice the price). If you don't care about a manual transmission, there are several vehicles coming out to compete with the lower-priced-end of the X5 range soon that will have a full complement of safety features, including the VW Touareg and Volvo XC90, but it may be a while before they also have established crash test scores.

Audi A4
Biggest problem is poor reliability. The only other issues are the greater safety risk from not being a higher, heavier SUV. In the EuroNCAP test, the A4 did better than the BMW 3-series and 5-series, Volvo S40, S60, S70, and S80, VW Golf and Passat, and many others (this covers front and side, where the A4 got a perfect 100%).

Bottom line: Top car AWD choice. Cheapest manual transmission AWD vehicle with head airbags and stability control that also has good crash test scores. Basically, it has every major safety feature that is available today on a wide variety of vehicles, lacking only very new things like night vision, or not-widely-available things like Volvo and Saab's active head restraints. The only current vehicles with better directly-comparable crash test scores available in the US are the Saab 9-5 and 9-3 and the Mercedes-Benz C-class and E-class. The 9-5 doesn't handle as well as the A4. The E-class isn't available with a manual tranny at all. The C-class is worthy if you don't want AWD, but has just as much of a reliability problem as the A4. To get a manual transmission SUV that is as safe, you have to go up to the X5 (for a lot more money, and a lot worse gas mileage and slightly worse handling).

Saab 9-3
The only real problem is unknown reliability (but unknown still means very likely still better than the horrible reliability of the X5 or even A4). Other than that, the only disadvantages are not being an SUV and not having AWD. The 9-3's recent EuroNCAP scores are very impressive, as are its very full list of safety features. It's telematics system is standard compared to optional on the A4 (and very expensive on the 3-series). It also has active head restraints that the Audi and BMW don't have. It handles better than the Passat, comparably to the A4. It is much cheaper than the 3-series and a bit cheaper than the A4, with likely better reliability. Bottom line: top non-AWD car choice. Probably the safest non-SUV in the world right now if you factor in both active and passive safety.

BMW 3-series
Biggest issues are price ($2-3k+ more than A4 when similarly equipped), reliability, and worse crash tests than the A4 or 9-3. As with A4, not as heavy or a high as an SUV.

The Saab 9-5 and the Volvos
The 9-5 and the Volvos seem to have better reliability than the BMWs and Audis, but the current S60s, V70s, and 9-5s don't handle as well. We'll have to see whether the S60R, V70R do substantially better. Also, the Volvos crash test scores, while good for most of the industry and bested in general by the other excellent vehicles in this list.

VW Passat
Biggest issue is lack of AWD and poor headrests (whiplash can be serious and long-lasting). Next biggest issue is whether old crash test results really carry over to the new version which supposedly changed almost all parts in the vehicle in the middle of 2001. Would be nice to have new IIHS and side crash tests, but both NHTSA and IIHS seem to think the old crash tests should apply and lists them for 2002 (and thus probably won't retest), while separated pre- and post-redesign. Could use a telematics system.

Bottom line: Much better reliability than the Golf/Jetta, plus it's heavier than those vehicles. Best choice for around $20k.

BMW 525i
If you don't mind not having AWD or an SUV, and you can afford it, the 525 is a fine choice. Probably worth doing a good hard comparison with the 9-5. With the 5-series, you probably get slightly better handling for your slightly worse crash test scores.

There seems to be a real difficulty getting good handling, good reliability, and good safety features and crash test scores all into the same vehicle, especially in an SUV or if you also ask for a manual transmission. I'd really like to see a small or mid-sized SUV for under $40k with:

  • unibody construction
  • a manual transmission
  • AWD
  • above average reliability
  • good crash test scores
  • side torso AND head airbags
  • stability control
  • handling as good as current car-based SUVs (X5, Forester)
Telematics and active head restraints would be welcomed extras. I suspect that we'll see a vehicles meeting these specs starting in the 2004 or 2005 model years, but it would seem that as I suspected last year, there is no such choice at the moment for the 2003 model year.

Since the Cayenne, Touareg, and XC90 are all coming to the US only with automatic transmissions, the two best contenders to first meet this modest set of requirements would seem to be the upcoming BMW X3, if it can pull off better reliability than its big brother the X5, or the Subaru Forester once it gets Subaru's stability control system (the only thing that kept it out of this list). Perhaps next year when it is rumored to also get a turbo engine like the WRX?

More information about automobile safety.

Other health and safety related consumer info that I've collected. In particular, see the disclaimer.

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Karl Pfleger
November, 2002