Although they’re not without their detractors, the Top Safety Pick awards from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety still represent something like a “seal of approval” for many customers. Along with the New Car Assessment Program run by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA)—which uses “star” ratings for its crash-test evaluations—the IIHS effort is one of the two most-watched third-party safety evaluations in the country; in other words, drivers take it very seriously.
How seriously? When the Institute developed a new test of vehicle roof strength in 2010, requiring a significantly higher level of protection in rollovers, automakers actually made changes on the fly—instead of following the “normal” timing for vehicle redesigns—to ensure their products would still pass the new evaluation and earn Top Safety Pick status (even on vehicles that would have still have received five-star ratings from NHTSA without modifications). For those who are curious, the IIHS’ current roof-strength test requires a vehicle to withstand a metal plate being pushed against its roof with a force equal to four times its weight, without being deformed by more than five inches.
The IIHS evaluates performance in three other crash scenarios as well. To determine how a vehicle stands up to frontal impacts, the Institute test crashes each one at 40 mph into a barrier that’s offset from what would be a head-on collision. Experts then check the vehicle’s cabin to see how well it maintained its integrity, examine data from a driver’s-seat crash-test dummy representing a male in the 50th percentile for size, and watch slow-motion video recordings of the tests to examine the performance of the seatbelts and other components of a vehicle’s restraint system.
In side-impact evaluations, the vehicle is slammed with a barrier moving at 31 mph. Here, the IIHS ratings are based on the extent of “injuries” to a pair of crash-test dummies representing women in the 5th percentile for size. Also under scrutiny: the performance of a vehicle’s head-protection measures and the extent of damage to its structure. Notably, the barrier used in this part of the testing has been specifically engineered to represent a pickup or SUV to take into account some of the most potentially dangerous scenarios.
The procedure the IIHS uses to rate rear-crash protection follows two separate steps. First, engineers take precise measurements of each vehicle’s head restraint system for a math-based evaluation of potential safety protection. Vehicles that get “good” or “acceptable” ratings in this area are then put to the test in impacts that mimic a rear-end collision at 20 mph. Another crash-test dummy does its part, too, providing the IIHS with data regarding how crash forces could affect a person’s neck.
The IIHS previously required Top Safety Picks to have electronic stability control, but since the government recently mandated that all new vehicles from the 2012 model year forward need to have this as standard equipment, it’s now a moot point.
Speaking of which, the first batch of 2012 Top Safety Picks was recently revealed, with 115 different vehicles earning the recognition by achieving top scores in all four crash-test evaluations; 18 are new to the list, with the remainder being carryover winners from 2011 that did not get any significant changes for the 2012 model year.
The automakers with the most awardees:
Toyota (including Scion and Lexus), 15 winners
GM (including Buick, Cadillac, Chevrolet and GMC), 14 winners
Volkswagen (including Audi), 13 winners
Ford (including Lincoln), 12 winners
Honda (including Acura) 12 winners
Two more important caveats: the IIHS Top Safety Picks aren’t comparable across different vehicle classes; that is, a Top Safety Pick in the subcompact segment is not going to protect occupants to the same degree as a Top Safety Pick from the full-size pickup category. Also, the Institute will continue to test more 2012 vehicles on a rolling basis throughout the next year, updating its list of Top Safety Picks along the way.
And speaking of which, here’s that complete list of the 2012 IIHS Top Safety Picks, as broken down into the Institute’s different vehicle classes:Minicars
Chevrolet Cruze, Sonic and Volt; Ford Focus; Honda Civic (sedan), CR-Z and Insight; Hyundai Elantra; Kia Forte (sedan) and Soul; Lexus CT 200h; Mazda3 (sedan and hatch); Mini Cooper Countryman; Mitsubishi Lancer (but not the Ralliart or Evo models); Nissan Cube, Juke and Leaf; Scion tC, xB and xD; Subaru Impreza (except WRX models); Toyota Corolla and Prius; and VW Golf and GTI (four-door models only for both).Midsize Moderately Priced Cars
Audi A3, Buick Verano, Chevrolet Malibu, Chrysler 200 (sedan only), Dodge Avenger, Ford Fusion, Honda Accord, Hyundai Sonata, Kia Optima, Subaru Legacy and Outback, Toyota Camry and Prius v, VW Jetta (sedan and wagon) and Passat, and Volvo C30.Midsize Luxury/Near Luxury Cars
Acura TL (built after September 2011), Acura TSX (sedan and hatch), Audi A4, Lincoln MKZ, Mercedes-Benz C-Class, VW CC (except four-wheel-drive models), and Volvo S60.Large Family Cars
Audi A6, BMW 5 Series (except four-wheel-drive and V8 models), Cadillac CTS, Hyundai Equus and Genesis, Infiniti M37 and M56 (except M56x four-wheel-drive models), Lincoln MKS, Mercedes-Benz E-Class (sedan and coupe), Saab 9-5, and Volvo S80.Small SUVs
Honda CR-V, Hyundai Tucson, Jeep Patriot (only with optional side torso airbags), Kia Sportage, Subaru Forester and VW Tiguan.Midsize SUVs
Chevrolet Equinox; Dodge Durango and Journey; Ford Edge, Explorer and Flex; GMC Terrain; Honda Pilot; Hyundai Santa Fe; Jeep Grand Cherokee; Kia Sorento; Subaru Tribeca; and Toyota Highlander and Venza.Midsize Luxury SUVs
Acura MDX, Audi Q5, BMW X3, Cadillac SRX, Infiniti EX35, Lexus RX, Lincoln MKT and MKX, Mercedes-Benz GLK and M-Class, Saab 9-4X, and Volvo XC60 and XC90.Large SUVs
Buick Enclave, Chevrolet Traverse, GMC Acadia, VW Touareg.Minivans
Chrysler Town & Country, Dodge Grand Caravan, Honda Odyssey, Toyota Sienna and VW Routan.Large Pickups
Ford F-150 (crew cab models only), Honda Ridgeline and Toyota Tundra (crew cab models only).