A car safety test for a common type of crash -- where the front
corners of two cars collide as the drivers swerve to avoid each
other -- found only three of 11 midsize luxury cars earned a
released by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) in
August don't mean new cars are any less safe. They mean that safety
experts have once again raised the bar.
The IIHS, which is funded by the insurance industry, runs a
variety of crash tests on new cars and rates their performance as
Good, Acceptable, Marginal or Poor. Consumers consult the test
results to help them choose safe vehicles. The IIHS ratings are
different than the
ratings that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration
(NHTSA) uses to present the results of tests required by federal
But both sets of ratings are adjusted periodically to reflect
the state of the art in safety expectations.
Hitting the safety reset button
Typically, cars get lower crash test ratings when the tests
change. In 2009, 94 cars earned the IIHS' Top Safety Pick
designation. A year later, after new tests for roof strength were
added, 58 cars earned that distinction.
The NHTSA gave its highest mark -- five stars -- to 95 percent
of cars it tested in 2007 on frontal-crash ratings. But a new
ratings system in 2011 saw the number of five-star cars drop
significantly, with 19 of 33 models tested getting four stars.
With only a few cars undergoing the IIHS' new small-overlap
crash test, it's too early to tell if other cars will perform as
the high-end vehicles did, or if the test will spur automakers to
engineer new models to accommodate the new benchmark.
The test simulates a 25 percent overlap between cars, a type of
accident that is more frequent than a direct head-on crash, says
David Zuby, chief research officer at IIHS. While a frontal crash
would be absorbed by the crumple zone, a front overlap crash pushes
a car's wheels into the wheel well, causing serious lower-body
injuries that can be deadly.
shows how having the front quarter of a car hit a barrier damages a
"Good performance is going to make it less likely that people
are killed," he says of the new test and the top rating. "It's also
making it less likely to have injuries to the chest, head and
Safer means cheaper to insure … sometimes
Ultimately fewer injuries should translate into cheaper car
insurance rates. Auto insurance companies closely monitor the
frequency and cost of injury claims in a given model of car. (See "
How a car gets a bad reputation
But insurers look at repair costs as well, says CarInsurance.com
consumer analyst Penny Gusner. "Some of the safest cars on the road
are among the most expensive to fix," she notes, pointing to recent
data from the Highway Loss Data Institute showing collision and
comprehensive claims for high-dollar machinery that reflect their
lofty sticker prices.
For example, a Mercedes GL-Class sport-utility has below-average
claims for injuries but well above-average costs for collision and
comprehensive claims. A 40-year-old man with a clean record would
pay about $1,766 a year to insure it, according to Insure.com. A
similarly safe Lexus GX460 -- with average collision and
comprehensive claims -- would be $1,509.
Two car makers -- Honda and Mercedes-Benz -- have already said
that the new IIHS test could prompt changes that add to a vehicle's
weight and cost.
According to Automotive News, Honda is concerned that
alterations could affect handling, ride comfort and fuel economy.
Mercedes-Benz said the test recreates an "unusually severe and
correspondingly uncommon accident scenario" that put its C class at
Look at all ratings, not just new ones
The IIHS now has five tests for which it issues a rating:
moderate- and small-overlap crash tests, side-impact crash tests,
rollover ratings and head and neck restraint evaluation. A Top
Safety Pick rating requires a Good (G) rating on all of them.
While the new IIHS test is important, Zuby says, new car buyers
should look at its scores for all of the tests. "If you want the
safest car, go for all 'G' across the board," he says.
For a little while, at least, cars achieving that mark will
For 2012 cars that have undergone all of the IIHS tests, the
only cars with Good ratings in all tests are the Acura TL and Volvo
S60. The 2012 Infiniti G had the third-best score for the front
small overlap test -- "A" for Acceptable -- but had a "M" Marginal
rating for the rear crash test, an area less likely to have a fatal
crash than the front or front corner of a car.
Small luxury sedans from Audi, Mercedes and Lexus all scored a
Poor in the small-overlap crash test. (You can see the rest of the
IIHS ratings here.)