Video: Midsize car crash test results

By Lea Thompson Chief consumer correspondent
NBC News
updated 3/5/2006 4:33:24 PM ET 2006-03-05T21:33:24

This story aired Dateline Sunday

If you look at the broken glass and mangled metal after a car crash, it is hard to imagine that anybody could survive them.  But remarkably, one can, says Adrian Lund of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety— that is, if you choose the right car.

At the sophisticated state-of-the art crash hall the Insurance industry built, the goal is to improve safety and reduce claims for insurance companies.

In this latest round of tests, seven popular midsize cars were put through two tough tests.

Front crash test
The first test simulates a high speed frontal collision — the leading cause of deaths and serious injuries on America’s roads.

Adrian Lund, Insurance Institute for Highway Safety: Serious front crashes often occur on two lane roads, where one vehicle drifts across the center line a little bit and the driver’s sides of the two vehicles hit each other head on.

Unlike 10 years ago, when the institute first started this test, most new cars now do very well. They do so well that a person could literally walk away from this 40 mile-per-hour crash. 

That’s the case for the first two luxury cars in this test - the $33,000 BMW 3 series, and the $34,000 Lexus. But the far less expensive $22,000 dollar Pontiac G6 also does well. All three cars get the institute’s highest rating, “Good.”

Lea Thompson, Dateline Correspondent: (observing crashed car) There’s hardly a crack in the windshield.

Lund: This is what the engineers have learned to do, build the structure so that it absorbs all of that crash energy up front, and gives you and your restraint system time to ride the crash down.

But not all cars do as well, like the $22,000 Ford Fusion.

Lund: We saw high loads on the dummy’s right leg. For that reason, we rate this vehicle “acceptable” and “not good.”

Initially, the institute says it found a real problem when it sent the $22,000-dollar Hyundai Sonata down the runway.

Thompson: Would you call this a failure?

Lund: This is a failure of the seat.  Exactly. 

Thompson:  So what happened?

Lund: The safety belt actually got tangled up with the seat back recline lever. It actually lifted on the lever, allowing the seat to be loose in the car.

Thompson: And what was the fix?

Lund: The fix was to put this little tang on the end the lever so that in the crash, when the belt is sliding forward, it can’t slide past that and get behind the lever.

Thompson: And it worked?

Lund: And it worked.

Without the fix, the Sonata is rated “poor.” But, Hyundai has recalled nearly $36,000 cars in order to repair the seat. If you get it done—the Sonata moves to a “good.”

Side crash test
The next test is much harder to pass: It simulates a side crash — the second deadliest accident, which Lund says usually happens at intersections.

A sled represents the front end of a pickup truck or SUV — high off the ground and heavy, and the test barrels the sled right at the dummy’s head at 31 miles per hour.

Lund says cars need a strong structure and must have some way of protecting both the head and body. The institute always tests vehicles with standard equipment.

The first car tested, the Ford Fusion, comes standard with no side airbags.

Lund: We have direct contact between the dummy’s head and the barrier.We also see high risk of internal organ injuries, rib fractures, and pelvic fractures.

On the side test the Fusion gets a “poor,” the lowest rating.

So does the Pontiac G6 -- another car without side airbags as standard equipment. Lund says the structure collapses too much.

Lund: The barrier is actually striking the driver dummy’s head.  So this is a high risk of serious brain injury or skull fracture. This is a potentially fatal crash.

But if you buy the G6 equipped with optional side air bags, they’ll protect the head and the body.

Lund: This driver will survive this crash without serious injuries.

With airbags, an extra cost of $700 dollars, the G6 gets an “acceptable,” the second highest rating.

The next five cars tested won’t cost you anything extra to get those side airbags. They come as standard equipment.

The $33,000 Infiniti G35, the 28,000 Acura TSX, and the even less expensive Hyundai Sonata all have good head protection. But because their side structures collapse too much Lund says there could be internal injuries. So all three are rated “acceptable.”

In comparison, the structure on the BMW 3 series is slightly stronger.

Lund: Good enough to get a “good” rating.

And even better is the Lexus.

Lund: This is a poster child for how we want manufacturers to make their vehicles. It looks good. The dummies say it’s good. It’s a good vehicle.

All of these midsize cars meet federal safety standards of course or they would not be on the road. Ford says it will ask the institute to put the Fusion with its optional side airbags to the test and Ford expects the Fusion’s performance to improve.

GM thinks all customers should buy side air bags. It says this test shows the value of them. Both companies respond their cars — without side airbags — do as well as other midsized cars that don’t have side airbags.

Thompson: What you do here is very precise. How does that relate to what happens on the real highway?

Lund: The real world is a lot messier. However, vehicles that do well in our very precise tests are going to do better in the range of crashes that occur in the real world and on the highway.

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