NBC News
updated 11/18/2003 5:16:11 PM ET 2003-11-18T22:16:11

They’re some of the most popular cars and vans on the road, priced from $20,000 to $60,000. So does that buy you a car built to drive away from a minor fender-bender without a major repair bill? Not necessarily. Believe it or not, a little tap could leave you with a serious case of bumper shock. Chief Consumer Correspondent Lea Thompson reports with a “Dateline Consumer Alert.”

You never see ads touting a vehicle’s bumpers. But maybe you should, because sometimes just a little bump can really batter your wallet.

Brian O’Neill and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, which is funded by auto insurers, want manufacturers to make better bumpers to cut down on costly repairs. A new headlight these days can go for as much $800.

The Institute’s four tests, two front, two rear show what can happen in a typical fender bender in a parking lot. The tests are run at 5 miles an hour, the equivalent of a brisk walk. The cars will be ranked good, acceptable, marginal or poor, based on how well the bumpers hold up and how much it costs to fix them.

Dateline also wondered if you pay more for a vehicle will you get better bumpers?

2003 MAZDA6

The least expensive in this round of cars and minivans is the $20,725 midsize Mazda6. The institute is pleased to see only $300 in damage in the tough pole test. In the rear test, there was $500 in damage, much of it underneath and out of camera range, so the Mazda gets marked down to acceptable, the second best rating.

2004 NISSAN QUEST

Next up is a minivan, the $25,000 Nissan Quest. In all but one test, the damage is over a thousand dollars.

“This bumper system is so weak that it shattered,” says O’Neill.

The Quest gets a poor, the lowest rating.

2004 TOYOTA SIENNA

Another minivan, the $28,000 Toyota Sienna minivan does a little better. It gets a marginal.

2003 SAAB 9-3

Then there is the $31,000, midsize Saab 9-3. It will cost $178 to pop that part back into the bumper. Not bad, but the Insurance Institute estimates it will cost you a whopping $1,300 if you backed into a pole.

“We estimate that it will take about eight hours to straighten this,” says O’Neill.

The Saab 9-3 also gets a marginal rating.

2003 INFINITI G35

The midsize Infiniti G35 is a little more pricey but O’Neill says its bumpers are much worse.

Three of the four five-mile-an-hour tests we conducted on the G35 resulted in repair costs of over $1,000,” says O’Neill.

It gets a poor.

2003 MERCEDES E-CLASS

Now the $60,000 Mercedes E-Class. Most people would expect it to have great bumpers. Yet in the pole test there were nearly $3,000 in repair costs.

“Extensive damage to the trunk lid here, damage to the bumper cover which has got to be replaced, damage underneath,” says O’Neill.

The Mercedes E-Class gets a poor, which seems to show bumper quality has nothing to do with the price of the car.

MANUFACTURER’S RESPONSE

Mercedes and Nissan, the maker of the Infiniti G35, say their bumpers are as good as their competitors and Mercedes says in this case style is more important than the repair cost of a bumper. And Saab calls the Institute’s test “rather severe.”

The Saab 9-3, like all of the cars tested, do meet federal standards for bumpers, but there are no standards for the minivans. Still O’Neill says, manufacturers should and can do better.

“What shouldn’t be a frequent occurrence is very expensive repair bills after these minor impacts,” says O’Neill.

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