Video: SUVs vs. cars

Dateline NBC
updated 9/12/2004 9:17:22 PM ET 2004-09-13T01:17:22

It's a new test pitting SUV bumpers against the bumpers of smaller cars. You might think an SUV would escape virtually unscathed. Well, it turns out that even at low speeds, the price tag can be pretty high for both vehicles.

The SUVs and passenger cars in this test are going just 10 mph. They simulate the typical "fender bender.”

“The kind of crash that's very common in commuting traffic,” says Brian O’Neill.

He heads the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, a non-profit organization financed by major insurance companies. Its mission is to cut insurance repair costs. This summer the Institute tried something new at its state of the art test facility in Virgina. It analyzed how much damage is done when one of those big, hulking SUVs hits a passenger car.        

The answer is that a fender-bender can be very costly for both vehicles.

“What we're showing with these tests is that often, when cars and SUVs hit one another, the bumpers completely miss,” says O’Neill. “We're going to see thousands and thousands of dollars in damage in some cases.”

Not only do most SUV and passenger car bumpers not match, the Institute found most manufactuers don't make bumpers within their own fleets the  same height. So, it tested manufacturers against themselves: a Volvo passenger car against a Volvo SUV, Chevrolet against Chevrolet.

First up is the 2004 Nissan Murano SUV, which slides into the rear of the 2005 Nissan Altima and crushes it's trunk. The 10 mph bump turns into a total repair bill of $5,002 for the two vehicles combined.

“We've got radiator damage, a coolant leak so the vehicle could not be driven after a crash like this,” says O’Neill.”

When things are reversed and the Altima car rear-ends the Murano SUV, it cost even more to fix these vehicles, at $5,695. Remember, this is just fender-bender speed. The hood crumples and again the radiator is destroyed.

“The vehicle cannot be safely driven after this kind of crash because you'll do engine damage when you've got no cooling fluid in the vehicle,” says O’Neill. “This vehicle's got to wait for a tow truck.”

The Institute also looked at Chryslers, in this case, the 2004 Grand Jeep Cherokee and the Dodge Stratus.

When the jeep SUV rear-ends the Stratus, there $6,129 dollars in combined damage. The cost is $4,535 when the Stratus slides under the Jeep.

O'Neill says there is no reason manufactureres can't lower SUV bumpers significantly, so cars won't nosedive under them.

“Here's what's determining whether a vehicle can go off-road,” says O’Neill. “This low structure down here, not the bumper up here. This bumper height is all about styling it's about appearance it has nothing to do with function.”

And here's  a fender bender with Volvo's SUV, the XC90, and the 2004 Volvo S40.

There is $4,056 damage when the SUV hits the car, and $6,080 when the car hits the SUV.

“As you can see here once again the bumpers overrode and missed one another,” says O’Neill.

It’s the same story with Chevrolet. When the Chevrolet Trailblazer SUV hits the 2004 Malibu, it costs $4,167. When the car hits the SUV, it's a $4,100 mishap. Both have radiator damage.

“So this vehicle even though it's big and tough, can't be driven after this 10 mph impact,” says O’Neill. “[The bumper is] not doing any good at all, nor is the bumper on the Trailblazer.”

All told,  six out of the eight vehicles tested are damaged so badly they can't be driven away. If you're thinking it's just the cars that took a heavy hit, three of these crippled vehicles are the SUVs. And as far as damage costs, two of the SUVs actually have more damage than the car when they rear-end the car.

“Even though the SUV comes across as tough and rough, when some of these SUVs hit the rear of a car at ten miles an hour you'll see that they're not very rough and not very tough,” says O’Neill.

And O'Neill says that is because bumpers don't match up. The Institute did find one car company though, Ford, that is designing its cars and SUVs with bumpers at the same height. Will it make a difference? 

The Institute crashes the 2004 Ford Explorer SUV into the 2004 Ford Taurus. The collision cost  $1,256 in total damage. The car into the SUV cost $2,608 combined. They are about a third of what most of the other accidents cost.

“The pair of Ford vehicles in this program did very well,” says O’Neill. “In contrast, some of the other pairs from other manufacturers were a disaster.”

With all the damage and costs to consumers that these mismatched bumpers are causing, you might think there ought to be a law requiring bumpers to be the same height. Well, federal rules require all passenger car bumpers to be 16 to 20 inches off the pavement.

The problem is, SUVs, minivans and pickups are classified as trucks, so  they don't have to follow the rule.

We asked manufacturers why they don't make bumpers more compatible. They all declined to discuss it with us, but point out this is not a safety issue. Their cars and SUVs meet all federal standards and they are always working to improve design.

“We really have got to get the manufacturers to pay attention to bumper design for not only car to SUV crashes, but SUV to SUV crashes,  because they're increasingly common,” says O’Neill.

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