Every year the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) evaluates the crop of new vehicles, rating them against a battery of tests to determine their safety. Basically, these people crash shiny new cars for a living. They crash new model year vehicles in six different tests and measure the results. If the vehicle offers automatic braking systems, they run those through tests. Headlights are measured for effectiveness on curves, and when you have better high-end lights available; they test those too.
These folks do a lot of testing. But, as it happens from time to time, the winners of these sorts of things can turn out to be less-than-exciting. Buried amongst practicality there are vehicles that exude awesome. From style to performance, we dug in to find out which of these safety heroes was also worthy of the “coolest” label.
IIHS Safety Ratings 2021
It’s worth noting, from the Institute’s page explaining their tests, that everything they test earns a good rating on their moderate overlap frontal test. It’s encouraging to think that everything is far better than it used to be back in the 90s when the IIHS started testing.
Automakers have struggled a bit more with the small-overlap tests. That’s the area outside the front crumple zones, where the vehicles “clips” their barrier. Wheels get pushed into the passenger compartment, that sort of thing. It’s all measured, ranked, and the best-of-the-best are recognized by the IIHS Top Safety Pick awards. The distinction between Top Safety Pick and Top Safety Pick+ comes down to the headlights. If the vehicle is available with lights rated “good” or “acceptable” on some models, it’s the basic award. If every trim level and package has the better lights, then the vehicle gets the “plus”.
Without further ado, here are 10 of the coolest rides from the IIHS Top Safety Ratings 2021 list.
2021 Subaru WRX
The 2021 Subaru WRX and the Impreza are two sides of a coin. On one side you have the Impreza, riding on a new global platform, and the WRX still on the “old” one. In case you’re still stuck in the 90s (like me…) the Impreza and WRX split a few years ago, with the sporty WRX and STI being based on a modified, but a separate, platform. The Subaru WRX is powered by a 268 hp turbocharged 2.5L flat-4 engine and a choice of either a CVT or a 6-speed manual transmission. We’ve heard the CVT is passably decent (it’s probably fast on paper) but the manual is going to be our pick when given a choice.
Both cars nabbed Top Safety Pick status with the optional EyeSight Driver-Assist system. Opt for the EyeSight system and the LED headlights and you’ll be driving the safest version of the Subaru performance icon available today. The WRX is probably one of the most well-known cars in the performance aftermarket, and for good reason: the turbocharged engine is an excellent blank canvas for someone looking to build something unique. Even if you just want to keep it stock, the WRX splits the difference between daily driver and backroad-bandit well enough to keep you sane while commuting.
2021 Hyundai Veloster Turbo Ultimate
The 2021 Hyundai Veloster is an interesting vehicle, with a quirky 3-door arrangement that never ceases to draw comments. The Veloster has always been somewhat of a performance model for Hyundai, but the sporting feel of the brand was turned up a few years ago when the guy who spearheaded BMW’s M division for years jumped ship and started making Hyundai awesome. It shows too, and not just in the absolutely fantastic top-trim Veloster N. I drove one a few years ago at a track day and it blew my mind. The Veloster is a serious performance machine, full stop. I never imagined driving a Hyundai that hard, for that long, without a fire or small engine-related explosion along the way.
Just a step down the rung, the 2021 Veloster Turbo Ultimate is a more street-friendly model that comes standard with a full suite of driver assistance tech. The 1.6L 4-cylinder makes 201 hp and 195 lb.-ft. of torque, with the torque coming on at a nice usable 1,500 rpm. The other trim levels are well-equipped, but to get the Forward Collision-avoidance Assist package with Pedestrian Detection you have to step up to the Turbo Ultimate trim. Plus, among the impressive feature list, you get some stunning light-gray leather seats.
2021 Kia Stinger GT
The 2021 Kia Stinger GT is one of the most surprising things I’ve ever seen wearing the Kia badge. Well, at least until I saw a Telluride, but more on that later (in this list). The Stinger GT occupies the large sedan category and, when the badges are removed, it tends to confuse people in parking lots. That was my first impression when coming across one of these 365 hp twin-turbo machines in the parking lot of a sporting goods store. That twin-turbo 3.3L V6 is also good for 376 lb.-ft. of torque basically right off idle, which means that EPA mileage rating of 19 mpg around town is sure to be optimistic.
The Stinger GT has a big back seat, and a hatchback, meaning it’s a lot like one of those slick German sedans, only not as expensive. To get the same model that took the top spot for the IIHS awards, you need to opt for a GT1 or GT2 trim, both of which come standard with the right headlights and driver-assistance systems.
2021 Volvo V90
What’s a list of cool cars, even one filtered through the lens of safe ones, without at least one wagon? Incomplete, that’s what! The truth is, we had our pick of the Volvo lineup. The V60 made the cut, as well as the lifted Cross Country version of both the V60 and V90. When it comes to Volvo models, the V90 was the standout pick because it balances well between sporty and practical. The lower ride height (than the Cross Country) really complements the long sloping roof and elegant styling. Volvo vehicles really do age well, and the V90 is no exception.
The V90 is powered by an interesting 2.0L I4 that’s both supercharged and turbocharged for a usable 316 hp and 295 lb.-ft. of torque. I’ve driven it in the XC60, and the little 4-cylinder really does have the best of both powerbands: the supercharger gives it a nice push off the line, and the turbocharger keeps things going once you get off the on-ramp. As you might expect, the Volvo gets high marks across the board, and nabbed a Top Safety Pick+ award.
2021 Ford Bronco Sport
The “little” 2021 Ford Bronco Sport is so much better than we thought it would be. The Bronco Sport is based on the same platform as the Ford Escape, and shares engine with it too, but it lives up to the Bronco name it wears. When choosing between trims, unlike most of the others on this little list, every model of Bronco Sport comes equipped with a system capable enough to ace the IIHS front crash prevention tests, netting it a Top Safety Pick+ award. Though two engines are available, a 3- and 4-cylinder, both turbocharged, when we drove the Bronco Sport the 2.0L EcoBoost I4 quickly proved itself to be the one to have.
When the pavement ends the small Bronco Sport really comes alive. The top trim Badlands model has a really fancy rear axle (clutch packs on each halfshaft) which takes the rather ordinary all-wheel drive system and lets it function like a true locking rear end, letting the Bronco Sport send power to whichever wheel has the most grip. In practice, it’s more capable than the average “AWD” system. The baby Bronco has enough capability to get most of us far enough into nature to escape our newsfeeds.
2021 Genesis GV80
The 2021 Genesis GV80 is the brand’s first foray into the upscale SUV segment, and boy did they hit it out of the park. Remember that Genesis is a subsidiary of Hyundai, and the crossover that drips with style and class will impress you even more. When AutoWise writer Chris Teague reviewed a GV80 he noted it was, “the first time that a vehicle in my driveway caused people to stop and take pictures.”
Under the hood, you can get either a 4-cylinder that makes 300 hp, or a V6 that makes 375 hp. Luxury marque power? Check. Interior that nails the “feel” of those classic European luxury brands? Double check! The Genesis also packs in the advanced safety tech, which you pay extra for at Mercedes-Benz, and secures a Top Safety Pick+ award for the midsize crossover.
2021 Ram 1500
Only a single pickup truck made the cut for the 2021 IIHS Top Safety Pick awards: the 2021 Ram 1500. While poking through the details we noticed that not only was it the Ram 1500, but under the distinguishing category (headlights) of the three trim levels that earned the coveted top spot was the absolutely maniacal TRX. The obscenely powerful 2021 Ram 1500 TRX is, as Editor Bryon Dorr explains in his review, “so much more than the sum of its parts.” When you have 702 hp on tap, that’s a lot of adding!
This is the truck that finally allowed Ram to one-up the Ford Raptor, which previously wore the off-road factory pickup crown. No longer! In typical Ram fashion, it’s trolled Ford with a number of “Apex Predator” easter eggs, riffing on the “T-ReX” nickname. It’s nice to have a little good-natured horsepower war going again.
2021 Kia Telluride
The 2021 Kia Telluride debuted just one model year ago, and it made a great first impression when the automaker brought it to showroom floors looking more like the attractive 3-row concept than we had hoped for. Call it a pleasant surprise. Though I’d seen lots of pictures of the new Kia SUV, the first time I saw one of these in traffic I was shocked by the bold silhouette. The Telluride really does have presence, not to mention a generous features list when you start getting up into the top trim levels.
The model to get is an EX or SX, which are the loaded models. Those models come standard with the better LED projector headlights, and come standard with a 291 hp V6. Some reviewers across the web have noted torque-steer from a stop with the front-wheel drive models, so all-wheel drive seems like a logical choice for Kia Telluride shoppers.
2021 Ford Mustang Mach-E
With the introduction of the 2021 Ford Mustang Mach-E the Blue Oval is taking the EV fight to Tesla’s doorstep. The Mustang Mach-E seems aimed squarely at the Tesla Model Y, and it sure makes an impression. In person, AutoWise contributor Sujeet Patel found out the Ford was an attention magnet. He even caught a Raptor driver slowing down for a look. Ford nailed the presence part of the controversially-named EV. Sure, to many, the Mustang name is sacrilege to attach to a 4-door electric, but Ford sure did put curves in all the right places.
The tester we reviewed put down 346 hp and 428 lb.-ft. of torque, which was more than enough to have fun with. One big caveat we noticed, however, was a tendency to under-deliver on range and over-deliver on charge times. The Mustang Mach-E makes a capable alternative to a Tesla, but Patel suggested buyers have a garage with a charging setup so they can avoid the range-anxiety issues and inconvenience of fast charging that wasn’t as fast as advertised. When choosing which one to get, the IIHS award went to the GT and Premium models with the LED projector headlights.
2021 Lincoln Aviator
With the 2021 Lincoln Aviator, the luxury arm of Ford Motor Company really has done it. The Aviator hits all the right notes and is incredibly luxurious. With the Aviator they’ve really hit their stride, putting enough distance between the final product and the mainstream underpinnings. Unfortunately, that’s a gap that’s been visible on previous models, but one that’s largely gone on the Aviator.
Power comes from a twin-turbo 3.0L V6 that churns out 400 hp and 415 lb.-ft. of torque that runs through a 10-speed automatic. While impressive, we were shocked to see 494 hp and 630 lb.-ft. of torque listed alongside the specs for the plug-in hybrid. Yes, please! That’s the kind of hybrid I’d like to drive. When looking for the safest model opt for a Reserve, Grand Touring, or Black Label model, since they come with the more effective LED projector headlights.