Australia’s safest used cars for 2020 revealed

for sale written on yellow car window in liquid chalk

Sue Hewitt

Posted December 15, 2020

The latest used-car safety ratings show that buying an affordable second-hand car doesn’t have to mean compromising on safety.

After a year when surging demand for used cars has pushed prices almost 50 per cent higher, finding a decent set of second-hand wheels at an affordable price has not been as easy as it used to be.  

According to financial intelligence company Moody’s Analytics, consumers wary of using public transport in a pandemic have flooded the used-car market, pushing the wholesale price up 49 per cent between April and November last year. In November prices were more than 30 per cent higher than the same time a year earlier.   

But the good news is it is still possible to buy a decent, and more importantly safe, second-hand car for $15,000 or less.   

The just-released annual Used Car Safety Ratings 2020, compiled by Monash University Accident Research Centre (MUARC), have identified 50 models across a range of vehicle types that also have a strong safety record.  

Researchers used real-life data from more than eight million vehicle crashes across Australia and New Zealand to assign safety ratings from one to five stars to 362 vehicle models manufactured from 1982 to 2018.  

Of the 50 models that received a five-star safety rating for driver protection and crashworthiness, 25 were recognised as five-star-plus or a ‘safer pick’ because they also reduced the risk of injury for other road users, including pedestrians, cyclists and motorcyclists.  

Many of these safer-pick and five-star models are available for less $15,000 and many are under $10,000

white toyota prado with caravan attached driving on country road

Toyota Prado models from 2009 to 2018 received a five-star-plus rating.

Of all 10 vehicle categories studied by MUARC – light, small, medium and large cars; small, medium and large SUVs; people movers, commercial vans and utes – SUVs scored the most ‘safer picks’, including nine large SUVs, eight medium SUVs and one small SUV.

By contrast no light-car models achieved five-star status and while some commercial vans, commercial utes and people movers were rated five stars, none qualified as a ‘safer pick’. 

MUARC deputy director, associate professor Stuart Newstead, says it is crucial to consider the safety rating when buying a second-hand car. “Vehicles rated one star were at least 90 per cent more likely to kill or seriously injure the driver in a crash compared to the safest vehicles,” he says. 

Stuart says some of the safest used-vehicle models identified in this year’s study included the BMW 1 Series (2004-2013), Subaru Liberty (2009-2014), Mercedes-Benz E-Class (2009-2016), Audi Q3 (2012-2018), Hyundai Santa Fe (2012-2018), Volvo XC60 (2009-2017) and Toyota Prado (2009-2018). Each scored a five-star rating and qualified as a safer pick. 

Unsurprisingly, the safest cars are later models manufactured in the past 10 years, and generally speaking the newer the car, the safer it is. 

Researchers found the average risk of death or serious injury to the driver in a crash in a 2018-model car is more than 43 per cent less than in a 2000-model car. 

Newer vehicle models have a wide range of safety features including front and side airbags and active safety aids such as electronic stability control. 


silver subaru liberty driving on city road

Subaru Liberty (2009-2014) were also identified as a safer pick.

Seven of Australia’s safest used car models for 2020

In the market for a new used car? These are some of the safest used-vehicle models for 2020, based on the latest Used Car Safety Ratings report. Each scored a five-star rating and qualified as a safer pick.

  • BMW 1 Series (2004-2013) 
  • Subaru Liberty (2009-2014)
  • Mercedes-Benz E-Class (2009-2016)
  • Audi Q3 (2012-2018)
  • Hyundai Santa Fe (2012-2018)
  • Volvo XC60 (2009-2017) 
  • Toyota Prado (2009-2018)

Driving a (used car) bargain

Steer clear of inflated used-car prices. These are some of the best second-hand car deals to look out for when shopping around. 

Under $5000

Roomy medium-size SUV: 1998 Mercedes-Benz M-Class SUV, starts around $4600.

Under $10,000

Second family car or first car: 2004 BMW Series 1 hatchback, starts around $6240.

Under $15,000

High-tech and comfortable hybrid sedan: 2015 Toyota Prius hybrid, starts around $13,300.

Under $20,000

Premium sports SUV: 2009 Lexus RX 350, starts around $16,000.

*All these models are five-star-plus ‘safe picks’ and found through an internet search of car reviews and guides.