Video: 2004 Ford F-150 crash test

Dateline NBC
updated 12/19/2003 6:13:59 PM ET 2003-12-19T23:13:59

It may surprise you, but the best-selling vehicle in the country isn't a minivan or a SUV -- it's a truck. The Ford F-150 out-sells every other car, van, SUV or truck on the road. But how safe is the F-150 if you get into a collision? The answer: much better than it was two and a half years ago, when Dateline first told you it had failed this important crash test. It was after our broadcast that Ford announced it would beef up the safety of its popular pick-up. It's an example of "the power of the press" and what we call "The Dateline Difference."

It's marketed as 'Ford tough,' but as Dateline first showed viewers two and half years ago, when the Ford F-150 truck was pitted against a 320,000-pound barrier in a 40 mile per hour test, it failed miserably.

Brian O'Neill runs the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, a non-profit research group funded by automobile insurance companies. Its goal is to reduce claim costs. In 2001, O'Neill told us that the F-150 was one of the worst vehicles he'd ever seen in the test facility.

"His is as bad as it gets in terms of crash performance," said O'Neill. "Look at the collapse of the compartment. That is not a safety cage." 

The Ford F-150 got the Institute's lowest rating, a poor, and O'Neill cautioned against buying it.

"I wouldn't put my family, my wife or myself in a vehicle like this," said O'Neill.

Video: 2001 Ford F-150 crash test Ford says even though the F-150 already met Federal safety standards, it was redesigning the F-150 when that crash took place, and it turned to designer Frank Davis to make it safer.

"We put a lot of work into the chassis, and into the body structure," says Davis.

So now the front of the frame is engineered to collapse if the truck is hit off-center.

"You want to use this section of frame rail to crash, or give in, to absorb the energy of the crash," says Davis.

Other parts are designed to break away, absorbing more energy before the crush reaches you, and when the F-150's underbody is flipped upside down, brightly painted parts, colored for this demonstration, have either been added or beefed up.

"We've added high strength steel, which is about two and a half times stronger than regular steel," says Davis. "It's the key of how you don't let the intrusion come into the passenger compartment."

The new F-150 hit dealership lots last summer and Ford asked the Insurance Institute to test the new model.

"There is virtually no intrusion into the occupant compartment," says Brian O'Neill. "Someone experiencing an event like our offset crash could walk away probably with nothing but scratches at the worst."

And when you look at the old and the new together?

"We recorded very high forces on the dummy's head and neck [in the old model], the kind of forces that could lead to a fatal injury if a person experienced them," says O'Neill. "In contrast. When we look at the new F-150 the structure holds together  we've gone from very, very poor performance to very, very good performance."

The new F-150 gets the Institute's top honors, a rating of 'good,' and a 'best pick.'

But wait, before you head out to buy a 2004 F-150, there's something you should know. Ford is still making and selling the old style F-150, the same old body, same old frame, and same old 'poor' rating from the Insurance Institute. Only the name has changed -- sort of. Now it is called the "The 2004 F-150 'Heritage.'" The question we want to have answered is, why?

So we came to the motor city to ask Ford that question: Why is it continuing to make the poorly rated old Ford F-150 when it now has a much safer truck for people to buy?
"The F150 Heritage has historically performed exceptionally well in a number of aspects of safety," says Ford Motor's Doug Scott. "We also have a tremendous amount of real world data that shows F150 to be one of the safest full-sized pick-ups on the road."

Scott says the Institute's off-center test is just one measure of safety, and the old F-150 did very well in the government's front and side impact crash tests, and all safety testing aside, a lot of truck buyers just plain like the old 150 better.

"This truck has earned five-star, the highest rating available," says Scott.

But even so, the F-150 Heritage will be discontinued next June. O'Neill says the new model, even with its higher price of $200 to $600 more than the Heritage, is the only one people should buy.

"There is a very good a very safe F-150 as a replacement," says O'Neill. "It just doesn't make sense to choose the old F-150 when this new one is now available."

The F-150 may be a "Best Pick" in the Insurance Institute's high-speed crash test, but in a five mile-per-hour test of its bumpers, it gets a rating of "Poor." Ford points out those bumper tests only reflect repair costs and have nothing to do with the truck's safety.


Ford Motor Company designs all of its vehicle bumper systems to perform well in the company's stringent internal testing.  These tests by the IIHS are conducted to determine cost estimates to repair damage incurred in low speed bumper impact tests and are not related to occupant safety.  In addition, these tests may not be representative of the type of damage that occurs in real world situations.

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