by Douglas McIntyre | August 22, 2012 9:04 am
More than 10,000 people are killed each year in front-end crashes in the United States. While most cars offer protection in front-end accidents, overlap crashes, where the car is not hit head-on, are a different matter entirely. Until now, overlap crashes, which account for nearly one in four of the front-end crashes involving serious or fatal injury to front seat occupants, have not been tested by the government or other independent testing facilities.
On Tuesday, August 14, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) released test results of this new type of crash safety test for 11 of America’s popular midsize luxury vehicles. Only three models passed. Eight models failed. Like studies before it, it will change the way automakers approach building their vehicles.
Since 1995, when the IIHS began testing American vehicles, it has expanded its safety ratings to four major categories: front, side, rollover and rear. As each new test has come out, IIHS spokesman Russ Rader told 24/7 Wall St., most cars failed at first, but eventually vehicles were built to pass the test. To date, the vast majority of popular vehicles passed each of the other four test categories with full marks, including perfect scores for most of the cars on this list.
Interest in the overlap test was motivated by concern that front-end crash safety measures remained inadequate. “Even though we’ve had all this improvement in frontal crash protection through the testing the institute does and through the testing the federal government does,” Rader explained, “we still have 10,000 people getting killed in frontal crashes, and we wondered ‘why is that?'”
The small frontal overlap test is, according to Rader, likely going to change the way automakers approach building their cars for safety. “We expect that other automakers are going to add this to their development process because this is a competitive market, and all the manufacturers strive to get the highest safety ratings.”
The new test, called the “small overlap frontal crash test,” involves only one quarter of the front of the car hitting a rigid barrier at 40 MPH. In traditional front-end tests, half of the vehicle hits a barrier. The new test measures what happens to a front-seat driver or passenger when this kind of crash happens. The scores are the same as for the agency’s other tests: good, acceptable, marginal and poor.
The IIHS tests pointed to several common problems with this type of impact, including the failure of side airbags to deploy, car parts trapping the driver’s feet or causing the door to shear off. Another common problem involved the driver’s head sliding off the airbag — or even missing it entirely — and hitting the corner of the car.
The IIHS put mid-sized luxury models through the new test first because, Rader explained, those are the automobiles that “tend to get the most advanced safety and engineering systems first.” For example, according to Rader, the institute’s research showed that at least one luxury model, the Volvo S60, was built with this unique type of accident in mind. In the test, the S60 was one of only two vehicles, along with the Acura TL, to receive a “good” score.
In addition to IIHS’s rating, 24/7 Wall St. also looked at several other measures of overall safety and quality for these vehicles, such as Consumer Reports ratings and J.D. Power’s overall Initial Quality report. While some have received poor quality scores, the majority perform well. The eight cars on this list are, for the most part, well-built but are not designed to deflect small overlap frontal crashes.
Unless these automakers make improvements to these models to address this safety flaw, the already flagging sales figures of these cars could decline further. Already, sales of six of the eight models on the list have fallen in the past three years, according to sales data provided by Edmunds.
This article originally appeared on 24/7 Wall St. on August 15, 2012.
The Acura TSX Sedan and Wagon were tested separately, and each scored just “marginal” in IIHS’s new frontal crash test, despite receiving perfect scores for IIHS front, side, rear and rollover crashes. The institute conducted two tests on the car because the side cameras were destroyed in the first. In one of the two tests, neither the driver side curtain nor the side torso airbags deployed. The report concludes that “injuries to the left lower leg, ankle, and heel would be likely in a crash of this severity.” Sales of the Acura fell by just 6.4% between 2007 and 2011.
In the BMW 3-series’ crash test, the side torso airbag did not deploy and the side curtain airbags did not have “sufficient forward coverage to protect the head from contact with side structure and outside objects.” Meanwhile, the footrest came toward the passenger substantially in the crash, which IIHS said could cause injuries to the ankle, heel and right lower leg. For the other four safety tests (front moderate overlap, side, rollover and rear), the vehicle received scores of “good.” Sales of the BMW 3 series in 2011 were 6.5% lower than in 2010 and nearly a third lower from what they were in 2007.
Like most of the cars on this list, the Lincoln MKZ scored “good” on IIHS’s Top Safety Pick tests, but scored marginal on the small overlap frontal crash test. In that test, the dummy’s head and chest “completely missed” the front airbags, while the side curtain airbags did not provide sufficient forward coverage for the head. Nevertheless, the car received highs marks from Consumer Reports for its crash-test results, along with its quietness, ride and handling. 2011 sales of the MKZ and MKZ Hybrid were down nearly 20% from 2007, but sales in 2011 were 22.2% better than in 2010.
The Volkswagen CC sedan debuted in 2008. Despite mixed reviews, including a J.D. Power initial quality score of three out of five, the vehicle has grown its user base. Units sold have increased every year, and went up by 24% between 2009 and 2011. According to IIHS’s small overlap frontal crash test rating, the car’s door was “sheared off its hinges.” The report added, “The CC is the first vehicle the institute has ever evaluated to completely lose its door.” IIHS explained that any vehicle that loses its door automatically fails a test as the driver could be ejected from the vehicle.
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The Mercedes C-Class was given a score of “poor” in its small overlap frontal crash test, despite receiving good marks on the other IIHS tests. Neither the side curtain nor side torso airbags deployed in the test, and the dummy’s foot was stuck beneath the brake pedal. The pedal had to be cut off to free the foot. IIHS also noted the seat belt allowed for too much forward movement, with the head at risk of hitting the A-pillar, which is the vertical support near the driver’s seat. In 2011, sales were 8.8% higher than 2007 sales and 17.9% higher than in 2010.
The Lexus IS 250/350 was also given a score of “poor” in its small frontal overlap crash test, with the structure/safety cage, lower leg/foot and the restraint/dummy kinematics receiving poor scores. The side torso airbag did not inflate, and the head actually moved outside the open side window at one point during the test. Meanwhile, the brake pedals had to be cut off in order to free the right foot. Nevertheless, Lexus was named by J.D. Power and Associates as the most problem-free nameplate in America, with a score of 73 problems per 100 vehicles. The 29,669 combined Lexus IS 250, 350 and 500Fs sold in 2011 represented a 46% decline from 2007 and a 13.1% decline since 2010.
During the new test, the footrest and instrument panel moved toward the driver, making injuries to the left hip likely in the event of an accident. The dummy’s head did hit the front airbag but slid off to the left side, while the side torso airbag did not deploy. Furthermore, the driver door opened during the crash, placing the driver at risk of being ejected from the vehicle. Nevertheless, Consumer Reports points out the crash test results were one of the highs scores for the A4, along with agility, acceleration, transmission, fuel economy, fit and finish. In 2011, sales of the A4 were 22.4% lower than in 2007, although 2011 sales improved 1.6% from the previous year.
When the IIHS put the Lexus ES 350 through its new test, the dummy’s head barely made contact with the front airbag, with the head sliding off the left side. Meanwhile, the steering column moved significantly to the right and up, diminishing the protection to the chest in a high-impact collision. Neither the side curtain airbag nor the side torso airbag deployed in the crash test. IIHS notes that “injuries to the left knee and left lower leg, ankle, and heel would be likely in a crash of this severity.” Despite this, the car received “good” scores for all the other “Top Safety Pick” crash tests, with an exception of a “marginal” rating in the rear crash protection test. In 2011, the ES 350 sales were a whopping 50.7% lower than 2007 sales, including a 16% drop from 2010.
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