Video: High speed crash tests

Dateline NBC
updated 3/21/2004 11:58:01 PM ET 2004-03-22T04:58:01

For more than 12 years, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety has been crashing cars to see what works -- and what could work better. You might think by now there would be very little about cars and collisions that could surprise the Institute's experts. But these crash tests left even them shaking their heads.

Brian O’Neill: "Today, cars are much safer than they were when we started this program."

But even with all the major advances in vehicle design in recent years, there are still startling discoveries in this state of the art crash hall.

What you need to know first is the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety is  a non-profit group funded by insurance companies hoping to reduce claims. It buys cars  right off dealers’ lots and crashes them - simulating what would happen if two cars of the same weight hit each other at 40 miles an hour. The Institute then rates each car a best pick, good, acceptable, marginal or poor.

This time the institute will test six midsize cars. First up is the redesigned 2004 Nissan Maxima, the brand new Acura TL, and the sleek-looking Acura TSX.

On the outside the TSX looks like a mess. But inside this car, like the other two, the lifesaving passenger compartment holds up.

O’Neill: “This compartment is essentially as it was before the crash. This is what we want to see. We're now seeing this more and more often.”

Institute president Brian O'Neill, says all three cars earn the institute's highest honor, "best pick."

Next up is the 2004 Chevrolet Malibu. The test dummy suffered minor injuries to the head and legs.

O’Neill: “The 2004 Malibu is a good performer but not a best pick. “

Then there's the redesigned 2004 Mitsubishi Galant.

O’Neill: “We recorded some moderately high forces on the dummy's right leg so there was a risk of

a leg injury in this crash.”

Still, there were only minor injuries at most. This Mitsubishi is much improved since its acceptable rating in 1999 and  dramatically different than nice years ago.

O’Neill: “This is the '95 Galant from our first crash test program. You can see major collapse of the structure. Compare that with the 2004 Galant.  Look at the difference in the safety cage of these two vehicles.”

The new Galant earns a "good" rating.

But there is a car that troubles O'Neill.  It's the 2004 Suzuki Verona.

O’Neill: “The forces recorded on the dummy's when the had struck the b-pillar were off the charts compared to what we would normally see.”

That very hard impact could cause a serious head or brain injury. O'Neill pinpoints the source of the problem.

O’Neill: “Here we see this airbag really doesn't inflate until very late in the crash, throwing that head back violently.”

When the institute told Suzuki, it investigated and determined the airbag system was being miswired on the assembly line.

Suzuki corrected the problem and asked the Institute to retest the Verona.

O’Neill: “This is the original test.  Partially inflated.  The second test fully inflated already.  Still only partially inflated here. Now we'll see this head get throw back violently.  In contrast here we've got a properly inflated airbag.  The head comes back with much less violence.”

With the fix, the Verona gets an "acceptable,” the second highest rating. Suzuki says the Verona meets all government safety standards, as do all of the other cars in this test. Suzuki is studying these latest results though and recalling all of the Veronas sold before the modification. If you own one, Suzuki urges you to get it to a dealer for repairs.

To recap, top honors go to the Nissan Maxima, the Acura TL and the Acura TSX. All three earn "best picks." Mitsubushi's Galant and the Chevy Malibu are "good," and the Suzuki Verona, after the airbag fix, is "acceptable."

O’Neill: “You're much safer in today's midsize car than you would've been in the '95 midsize cars that we first tested. We're not there yet but in a few years I think we can declare victory and say, we've achieved our goal."

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