Video: How will your minivan protect you?

By Dateline Chief Consumer Correspondent
Dateline NBC
updated 11/6/2005 7:36:59 PM ET 2005-11-07T00:36:59

The family station wagon has largely been replaced by the minivan. It’s ideal, it seems, for transporting precious cargo... but will it protect you in a side-impact crash?

"Side-impact crashes are the second leading cause of death and serious injury," says Brian O’Neill, who heads the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. He adds that these accidents accidents usually happen at intersections. "What can happen is someone coming in the cross street is trying to get through the last minute. They gun it, and whamo! You’ve got a serious front-to-side crash."

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, funded by automobile insurers, designed a demanding test to try to improve safety and reduce claims. The test simulates what might happen if a small-sized woman gets slammed by a pick-up truck or SUV at 31 miles per hour.

They chose an SUV as there are a lot of them on the road these days. And because they are higher off the ground, a person’s head can be right at the point of impact.

The institute tests vehicles with standard equipment and buys them right off dealer lots. The first three minivans come standard with no side-impact airbags.

2005 Mazda MPV
O’Neill says all the readings show the MPV’s structure collapses too much, allowing that barrier to come right into the minivan.

Brian O’Neill: The dummy’s head is hit by the barrier. We’ve got high forces on the neck and also very high forces on the torso. It’s never certain, but certainly there’s enough problems in this crash that a person could die in a crash like this.

As a result, the Mazda MPV gets the Institute’s lowest rating — “poor.”

2006 Ford Freestar
O’Neill says the 2006 Ford Freestar’s structure collapses even more and if the dummy, were a person she would be very badly hurt.

O'Neill: There’s high forces on the dummy’s neck, high forces on this body region.  So a person in a crash like this would sustain some serious injuries. 

The Ford Freestar also gets a “poor” rating.

2005 Toyota Sienna
The 2005 Toyota Sienna doesn’t come standard with side airbags either, but in this case, O’Neill explains a strong side structure really makes a difference.

O’Neill: There’s less intrusion into the compartment. So even though this version of the Sienna doesn’t have the airbags, that improved structure compared to the Freestar and the MPV means that the injury risks inside the vehicle are lower.

The Sienna gets an “acceptable,” the Institute’s second highest rating.

O'Neill: Good structure is very important. There’s no question about it. It provides the space for the driver to be protected.

Thompson: And if you add an air bag, it’ll probably even do better?

O'Neill: Absolutely.

Side airbags improve Ford Freestar and Toyota Sienna ratings
In fact, Toyota and Ford paid the institute to do a second test of their minivans— this time equipped with optional side airbags and both do much better.

O'Neill: The injury measures on the driver dummy are much lower than they were in the case without the airbags.

The Freestar’s rating goes from poor to acceptable.

And the Toyota Sienna? A dramatic difference as well. With side airbags, the Sienna goes from an acceptable to a good and best pick, the Institute’s highest honor.

But better safety does come at a price: $700 more for the Freestar and $1600 for the 2005 Toyota Sienna, because you have to pay for a whole option package.

However, the 2006 Sienna will have side airbags as standard equipment, and some are already in dealer’s showrooms.

Side airbags included
There are other minivans out there whose current models come standard with side airbags. The institute tested some of them too.

2005 Honda Odyssey

O'Neill: The curtain does a very good job of protecting the head. The bag does a very good job of protecting this part of the body. So the driver dummy in this test records no injury measures.  So very effective protection.

The Honda Odyssey gets a good rating overall.

2006 Nissan Quest
It too comes standard with head protecting curtain airbags.

O'Neill: This curtain back here for the driver does a very good job of protecting the head.

As a result, the Nissan Quest earns the institute’s top honor, “good” and a “best pick.”

All these minivans meet “federal safety standards,” and score high marks in the “government’s side-impact test.” Mazda is “disappointed in the results,” and Ford, says the Freestar provides “a high level of occupant protection... in real-world crashes.”

Thompson: With all of the safety features that are available today, are you surprised that there are still poor performers?

O'Neill: Not really. There’s still many designs that need to be improved.  But they’re increasingly good designs for consumers to choose from.

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