Falling Short: Tougher Crash Tests & Premium Models

Insurance institute tests 11 models for new frontal crash exercise.

Premium and luxury models should perform well in crash testing exercises given the amount of money car manufacturers pour into these vehicles. Not only are such cars designed with safety in mind, but these models often include extra airbags, collision avoidance systems and may be outfitted with injury-reducing active head restraints among other cutting-edge safety features.

IIHS Testing

Lexus Volvo crash testing

Lexus v. Volvo. The photos on the left reveal how the Lexus IS fared; the photos on the right show the Volvo S60. Dummy entrapment is evident in the Lexus as its footwell collapsed and A-Pillar was bent. Only small intrusions can be observed in the Volvo.

The Insurance Institute of Highway Safety, a nonprofit organization funded by auto insurers, has once again upgraded its crash safety testing. For 2013, the IIHS will incorporate a new small overlap frontal crash test, one where 25 percent of the car’s front end on the driver’s side slams into a 5-foot tall rigid barrier at 40 mph. Inside of each tested vehicle the IIHS sticks a male hybrid dummy, representing the average adult male that drives today. The test was developed to mimic the effects of striking a utility pole or a tree, representing a first-of-its-kind independent test in the United States and Europe.

Some 10,000 Americans die in frontal car crashes each year, representing approximately 30 percent of all deaths annually. Another exceedingly deadly factor, rollovers, is also tested by the Institute, a test that was introduced with 2008-09 models and is universally used today.

To receive the IIHS’ coveted “top safety pick” award, models must test “good” in each testing category including front, side, rollover and rear crashes. For 2013, the front rating will include the moderate front overlap test, with special recognition given to cars that excel in the new category too. The Institute won’t be able to fully evaluate all 2013 models for the new test, but those that are tested and score “good” across each testing criteria will be able to claim a higher award level that will be announced later this year.

Test Criteria

Offering comment about the new testing criteria was Institute President Adrian Lund. “This new test program is based on years of analyzing real-world frontal crashes and then replicating them in our crash test facility to determine how people are being seriously injured and how cars can be designed to protect them better. We think this is the next step in improving frontal crash protection.”

Of the 11 initial vehicles tested, just two received the IIHS’ “good” rating for front small overlap testing. The Acura TL and Volvo S60 earned “good” ratings, while the Infiniti G earned an “acceptable” rating. Earning “marginal ratings” were the Acura TSX, BMW’s 3 Series, the Lincoln MKZ and Volkswagen’s CC. Several models essentially failed the test, each receiving a “poor” rating, the lowest possible rating in such testing. The Institute identified these models as the Mercedes-Benz C-Class, the Lexus IS 250/350, Audi’s A4 and the Lexus ES 350. Each vehicle tested was pulled from 2012 model year stock.

Lincoln Acura

On the left, the dummy’s head was not cushioned by the airbag as the Lincoln MKZ’s steering column shifted to the side. The side curtain airbag was not able to make up for this deficiency. On the right, the Acura TL provided the desired head coverage as both front and side airbags responded with precision.

Structural Integrity

The Institute noted that vehicle structural integrity goes a long way in protecting passengers, with most new cars employing a safety cage designed to withstand head-on collisions. Crush zones offer additional protection by sending energy away from the passenger compartment. However, such zones are typically concentrated in the middle of the front end with reduced coverage elsewhere such as on the car’s outer edges.

It is these outer edges that concern the IIHS as crash forces go directly into the front wheel, the suspension system and through the firewall. Debilitating injuries may occur when a front wheel is forced into the passenger compartment, with profound leg and foot injuries the result. The Institute noted that if the outer car edges are improved, then such injuries can be reduced. One way to do that is by expanding the crush zone from the middle 50 percent of the vehicle to its entire front end.

“These are severe crashes, and our new test reflects that,” Lund says. “Most automakers design their vehicles to ace our moderate overlap frontal test and NHTSA’s full-width frontal test, but the problem of small overlap crashes hasn’t been addressed. We hope our new rating program will change that.”

Volvo S60

The IIHS has held up the Volvo S60 as an example of a car that other manufacturers might follow in improving vehicle testing. That test found just a few inches of cabin intrusion with the compartment faring almost the same as it did in the moderate overlap test. Volvo, incidentally, has been performing similar small overlap tests in-house since the late 1980s and considers its test results when designing new models.

On the other end of the spectrum, the Lexus IS fared poorly receiving as much as 10 times the passenger compartment intrusion as did the Volvo. The footwell collapsed in the IS and the A-pillar was bent. The “driver” was entrapped as the left front wheel and tire intruded into the passenger compartment. Similar entrapment was noted in the Mercedes C-Class, while the Volkswagen CC’s driver door was sheared off, a first in IIHS testing. That unusual incident resulted in an automatic downgrade for the CC, costing it an acceptable rating.

Manufacturer Response

IIHS testing was introduced in 2006 and its testing criteria has been tightened twice since. Manufacturers respond quickly when IIHS test results are published whether to accept congratulations for a “top safety pick” or to make a manufacturing change to improve vehicle safety. Indeed, Mercedes-Benz says that it will change the airbag algorithms to deploy side airbags when a small frontal overlap collision takes place. Those changes will appear with the current C-Class.

Additional Testing

The Institute also announced that its next testing with cover midsize sedans, moderately priced cars such as Honda’s Accord, the Toyota Camry and the Ford Fusion. Auto Trends will continue to keep its readers in the loop regarding all safety news related to the automobile industry.

See Also Where to Check a Car’s Safety Ratings

Media courtesy of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

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