If you’re after an affordable small car for its low price and high fuel economy, you’ll also find that many of these models offer a lot of standard safety features for the money. Here’s a list of affordable small cars with some surprisingly upscale safety features.   

Electronic stability control (ESC), which minimizes the likelihood of the driver losing control by selectively applying the brakes to individual wheels in emergency situations, is required by law on all vehicles from the 2012 model year on. ESC is also known as dynamic stability control, vehicle stability control and vehicle stability management, but shouldn’t be confused with traction control, a feature that keeps the wheels from locking up during acceleration. Tire pressure monitoring has also been standard since 2006, and lets the driver known when a tire’s air pressure is low. Anti-lock brakes aren’t mandatory, but are important because they keep the wheels from locking during emergency stops and helps you avoid skidding. All cars on the list have these features.

Automakers aren’t required to give you features like brake assist, electronic brake force distribution and hill start assist control. Here’s a rundown of what these do:

  • Brake assist applies extra pressure to the brakes during emergencies.
  • Hill start assist control keeps the car from rolling backward on hills when you start from a stop.
  • The Chevrolet Cruze and Ford Fiesta have a driver knee airbag that helps keep the driver positioned during a crash so the other airbags can protect him better. Knee airbags also help reduce leg injuries. 
  • Torque vectoring control is exclusive to the Focus, and increases vehicle stability and agility by adding brake force to the wheels on one side of the car during turns.
  • An engine immobilizer prevents vehicle theft because it only lets the car start when a special microchip is near the car. Without it, someone can break into your car, hotwire it and drive away.
  • The Chevrolet Sonic, Ford Focus and Fiesta’s rollover-sensing airbags inflate when the vehicle tilts and stay inflated longer to protect occupants in accidents with multiple impacts, like a rollover.

Aside from crash avoidance and protection equipment, a lot of small cars come with interior safety tech.

  • MyKey is Ford-exclusive, and the Focus is the only small car with it. MyKey uses a programmable key to limit vehicle speed, sound chimes when certain speeds are reached, limit stereo volume and remind the driver and passenger to buckle up.
  • OnStar is an in-vehicle security system that comes with GM models. It uses a wireless data service to contact OnStar representatives during emergencies. The system can also be used to get vehicle diagnostic information, get directions and make hands-free calls.
  • Think of Blue Link as Hyundai’s version of OnStar. This system will contact passengers and emergency services if an airbag deploys, has a 911 emergency assistance button, can locate your car using its GPS system, and can lock, unlock and start your car remotely. Blue Link also provides voice text messaging, a monthly vehicle report, downloads information from the internet, gives directions and gives tips for improving your fuel economy. Blue Link isn’t available on affordable small cars yet, but the 2012 Sonata has it, and the 2012 Veloster and 2013 Hyundai models should get it.

Affordable Small Cars with Upscale Safety Features





2012 Hyundai Elantra



Blue Link; Brake Assist 

2012 Kia Rio

About $13,000


Hill start assist control

2012 Hyundai Accent



Electronic brake force distribution; Brake Assist

2012 Ford Focus



MyKey, Torque vectoring control

2011 Chevrolet Cruze



Driver knee airbag; OnStar; Traction control; Engine immobilizer

2012 Nissan Versa



Brake Assist

2012 Chevrolet Sonic

About $14,000


Rollover sensing ESC; OnStar with automatic crash response; Brake Assist

2011 Ford Fiesta



Driver knee airbag; Post crash alert response system; Rollover-sensing side-curtain airbags