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Ten years ago most Americans said their first concern in purchasing a new car was fuel economy. That is now toward the bottom of the list.

No. 1 today is safety.While American auto manufacturers have developed many major safety features, they have not used them in the past as selling features. Both anti-lock brakes and airbags were available on a few American cars in the 1970s.

Mercedes-Benz first offered anti-lock brakes 14 years ago and has made this safety feature standard since the 1989 models. Air-bags were introduced in Mercedes-Benz autos sold in America in 1983.

Mercedes-Benz has spent millions of dollars and crashed hundreds of cars to develop what the company touts as the safest mass-produced automobile in the world. These safety zones, as they are called at M-B, even have features designed to reduce the effect of an accident on pedestrians and animals.

Leading the M-B safety parade are three-point seat belts with automatic tensioners, airbags and knee bolsters. Most manufacturers have developed similar systems, although M-B engineers will argue that theirs is the best.

In 1951 M-B developed the first "safety car body" featuring a rigid passenger cell coupled with front and rear crumple zones. In 1959 crash testing began with 80 cars destroyed that year in impact and roll-over tests.

In 1969 M-B established an accident investigation team that conducts an analysis of traffic mishaps that involve their cars.

Some M-B safety features are rather simple, such as placing the fuel filler opposite the driver, folding mirrors, and a spare tire placed to act as a crash buffer. Others required extensive research and are costly.

Mercedes-Benz has never been considered an economy car, but the company has never advertised it as a luxury car either. M-B has, in the past, simply stressed engineering. Today the emphasis is on safety.

A current M-B television ad shows a wreck on the highway. A young mother passing by the scene says, "I didn't buy my Mercedes to impress my neighbors, I did it for my family."

The message is simple - if you are going to be in an accident, you are better off inside a Mercedes.

The Mercedes safety story is affected by two factors that are difficult to avoid. Safety has its price. Most of us can't afford to buy a Mercedes. Second the size and strength required to produce this safe car also produces a vehicle that is not all that fuel efficient.

Mercedes has developed several plans it hopes will boost sales. A lease program reduces the monthly payment, and less expensive used M-B's can be purchased with a factory-backed warranty.

Both Volvo and SAAB have ads that say their cars are safer in severe accidents. Are American cars less safe? Not if you consider what you get for what you pay. But the laws of physics dictate that the stronger, heavier vehicle will survive better in a collision.

American cars tend to be lighter, smaller and considerably less expensive than Mercedes-Benz autos.