Safety First? Apparently Not at U.S. Automakers

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The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) released its best-rated safety picks for 2014 model year cars on Thursday and the big news is that the Camry from Toyota Motor Corp. (NYSE: TM) is back on the list after getting dropped earlier this year. The IIHS added a “small overlap front crash test” to its testing regimen last year and that has been a stumbling block for a lot of previously highly rated vehicles. The test simulates a left-front collision with a stationary object like a tree or telephone pole.

The 2014 list is divided into two categories: Top Safety Pick+ and Top Safety Pick. Here are the IIHS criteria:

TOP SAFETY PICK requires good performance in the Institute’s moderate overlap front, side, roof strength and head restraint tests and, for the first time, good or acceptable performance in the small overlap front test introduced in 2012. The same level of performance in those tests, along with at least a basic rating for front crash prevention, is required for the higher accolade, TOP SAFETY PICK+.

Most cars that achieved the Top Safety Pick+ rating incorporate front-crash prevention systems that incorporate including both warning systems and automatic braking.

The Top Safety Pick+ list includes 22 vehicles and the Top Safety Pick list includes an additional 17 vehicles. Last year, before the small overlap front crash test was adopted, 130 vehicles made the IIHS lists.

Honda Motor Co. Ltd. (NYSE: HMC) placed seven models on the Top Pick+ list and two more on the Top Pick list, including two Acura models.

Toyota Motor Corp. (NYSE: TM) placed four vehicles on the two lists, including its Camry on the Top Pick list. The Camry had failed the new crash test earlier this year, along with the company’s RAV4 and the Prius V models leading to the car’s being dropped from the lists. Getting the Camry back on the list was a big deal for Toyota. None of Toyota’s Lexus cars made either IIHS list. The Scion tC made the Top Pick list

Ford Motor Co. (NYSE: F) placed just two vehicles on the list, the Ford Fusion and the Lincoln MKZ, but that weak performance bested General Motors Co. (NYSE: GM) which managed to place just one car, the all-electric Chevy Spark, on the Top Pick list. Chrysler placed two cars on the Top Pick list, the Dodge Dart and the Chrysler 200 4-door.

The Chevy Spark is the only mini-car to make the list and GM deserves plaudits for taking care to provide a tiny car that is very safe. But just one car on the list for the top-selling U.S. carmaker? And that one will probably sell a veritable handful of units next year. GM should really be able to do better than that.

Both Ford and Chrysler could kick up their safety efforts a notch or two as well. Toyota made the effort for its top-selling Camry; why don’t U.S. carmakers put more emphasis on making safer cars? We leave answering that question as an exercise for the reader.