Being named a Top Safety Pick by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) is about to get a lot tougher—although not for the Acura TL and Volvo S60. Those two vehicles were the only ones to receive “good” grades in a new IIHS test of 11 near-premium/premium sedans from the 2012 model year. Of the others, the Infiniti G was rated as “acceptable”; the Acura TSX, BMW 3 Series, Lincoln MKZ, and Volkswagen CC received “marginal” scores; and the Mercedes-Benz C-Class, Lexus IS 250/350, Audi A4 and Lexus ES 350 were saddled with “poor” marks.
So what’s this tough new test of automotive safety all about? Let’s take a look …
New 2012 IIHS Safety Testing: Looking Back
Since 1995, IIHS evaluations for front-end protection had been based on 40-mph impacts into rigid barriers that had been offset from center by 40 percent. And in the past 20 years or so, new vehicles have continued to improve their performance in these tests, as automakers have continued to improve safety cages and develop crush-zone technologies to keep crash forces away from vehicle occupants.
"It's Packaging 101,” explained Adrain Lund, president of the IIHS. “If you ship a fragile item in a strong box, it's more likely to arrive at its destination without breaking. In crashes, people are less vulnerable to injury if the occupant compartment remains intact.”
However, most automaker efforts have focused on protecting the center area of the vehicles, which can still leave them vulnerable to impacts at their edges—such as when clipping a telephone pole or tree. These seemingly small incidents can have a big effect on passenger safety, with front wheels often getting driven into the passenger compartment, for example, where they can cause significant lower-body injuries. Or worse.
"Nearly every new car performs well in other frontal crash tests conducted by the Institute and the federal government, but we still see more than 10,000 deaths in frontal crashes each year," added Lund. "Small-overlap crashes are a major source of these fatalities.”
New 2012 IIHS Safety Testing: Looking Ahead
The new IIHS evaluation procedure has the test vehicles strike the same kind of barriers, at the same speed, but with just the outside 25 percent of a vehicle, on the driver’s side, bearing the impact. In these scenarios, properly performing restraints, including airbags and safety belts, are key. The challenge here is that drivers in these “small overlap” impacts also often need protection from side and curtain airbags, due to the post-impact forces, and those units aren’t always triggered in front-end collisions.
Now, it’s clearly going to take some effort on the part of automakers to catch up to the new IIHS criteria, so the Institute won’t require Top Safety Picks to excel in the new testing until the 2014 model year. On the other hand, the IIHS will continue putting vehicles through these more rigorous evaluations until then, and publicizing the results. Per the IIHS’ Lund: "We won't have evaluated many vehicles in the small overlap test in time for the 2013 award. Models meeting the current award criteria still offer outstanding protection in most crashes, and they will continue to earn Top Safety Pick [recognition] in 2013. However, those vehicles that also do well in the new test will get to claim a higher award level that will be announced later this year."
Note: Future Top Safety Picks will need to get the best possible score of “good” in the small-offset test as well as the current tests, which include evaluations for moderate-offset, rear-impact, side-impact and rollover protection.
New 2012 IIHS Safety Testing: The Results
For the curious, here’s what the IIHS had to say about the first two vehicles to score “good” grades in the new small-overlap crash testing:
Acura TL—"The Acura TL earns a good rating in the small overlap frontal test. The driver space was maintained reasonably well, and the dummy's movement was well controlled. Measures taken from the dummy indicate a low risk of any significant injuries in a crash of this severity."
Volvo S60—"Structurally, the Volvo S60 was best. With only a few inches of intrusion, the occupant compartment looked much the same as it did in a moderate overlap test. Reinforcement of the S60's upper rails and a steel cross member below the instrument panel helped to keep the safety cage intact."
(It’s worth noting that Volvo, of course, has been doing this kind of testing on its own for about three decades.)
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