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, 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.
The eight cars on this list are generally well-built, but are not designed to deflect small overlap frontal crashes. 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. These cars 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. Sales of the BMW 3 series has declined by 32.9% between 2007 and 2011. In that same time frame, U.S. unit sales of the Lexus ES 350 have declined by more than 50%.
Two of the models listed in this study, the TSX and the TSX Wagon, were tested separately, bringing the total number of vehicles tested by IIHS to 11, and the total number that received a poor rating to nine. However, as they received the same overall score, a “marginal,” we refer to both vehicles in the same study.