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Family sedans rate better than luxury in crash-test ratings

Sales personnel at Sport Honda look over the first 2013 Honda Accord to hit the showroom floor in Silver Spring, Maryland September 17, 2012. The Acco...
Sales personnel at Sport Honda look over the first 2013 Honda Accord to hit the showroom floor in Silver Spring, Maryland September 17, 2012. The Accord was one of two midsize family cars to earnGARY CAMERON / Reuters

Only two of 18 midsize family cars earned “good” ratings in the new frontal crash test by the Insurance Institute of Highway Safety, and one of those will soon be leaving the market.

The 2013 Honda Accord and Suzuki Kizashi were the only mainstream midsize sedans to earn good ratings, with the IIHS rating another 11 models  as “acceptable.” 

Two cars from Toyota landed in the “poor” category, the insurance industry-funded organization reported, the recently redesigned Camry and the new Prius V. The hybrid model “sustained major structural damage in the test,” the IIHS revealed in a new release.

Toyota responded to the IIHS results with a statement saying, "The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) periodically develops new, more severe or specialized tests which go beyond federal requirements. With this new test, the Institute has raised the bar again, and we will respond to the challenge. We are evaluating the new test protocols and can say that there will not be one single solution to achieve greater crash performance in this area."

The overall results might not seem impressive yet the family sedans actually outperformed the midsize luxury and near-luxury models previously tested by the Institute, noted IIHS President Adrian Lund.

“It’s remarkable, Lund said, adding that, “The difference is stunning. Thirteen of these midsize cars offer better crash protection than all but three of their luxury counterparts, and at a price that’s easier on the wallet.”

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This was the first time the IIHS had put mainstream sedans through its stringent new small overlap test, designed to simulate what happens if a car hits another vehicle or a roadside object, such as a telephone pole or tree.  Safety experts say the test reflects a significant number of real world crashes and is likely more representative of what happens than some earlier barrier tests.

“The crash damage in these tests is like the damage we see in real-world crashes where heads and chests are injured,” the IIHS chief noted.

Industry engineers say the new test nonetheless sets a particularly difficult challenge – especially as most of today’s vehicles were not intentionally designed to meet the new target – in which just 25 percent of a car’s front end on the driver’s side is driven into a 5-foot tall rigid barrier at 40 miles per hour.

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“The Camry and Prius v illustrate what can go wrong in a small overlap crash, despite good ratings in (other) IIHS tests,” the trade group cautioned. 

Researchers found that there was virtually no crash structure to absorb the energy of the impact, allowing the wheel to take most of the hit, resulting in “high levels of occupant compartment intrusion.”

Stressed Lund, “Toyota engineers have a lot of work to do to match the performance of their competitors.”

By comparison, the Accord and Kizashi were the stand-outs in the test. The Honda sedan just recently went on sale but the Suzuki model will become increasingly difficult to find in the months ahead as the Japanese maker has decided to pull out of the American market.

The two Japanese models will now qualify for the IIHS “Top Safety Pick+” award. The Accord will qualify in both its coupe and sedan configurations.

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In total, just 13 models currently qualify.  To reach that level, a vehicle must first achieve a good rating in four of five other tests, (and an acceptable in the other test), including moderate overlap frontal crash, and side impact and rollover. The vehicle must then score acceptable or good in the new small overlap test.

The winners so far include: the Dodge Avenger and its twin, the Chrysler 200 4-door; Ford Fusion; Honda Accord 2-door; Honda Accord 4-door; Kia Optima; Nissan Altima 4-door; Subaru Legacy and its twin, the Subaru Outback; Suzuki Kizashi and Volkswagen Passat.

Only two luxury models so far tested qualify: the Acura TL and the Volvo S60. 

Another 117 vehicles earn the less challenging “Top Safety Pick” honor, in some cases because they have not yet been subjected to the tough new crash test.

Along with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which sets mandated safety standards and runs its own tests, the IIHS has had a significant impact on vehicle design in recent years. And industry engineers say they’ll now have to keep the new test in mind.

“We’ve seen automakers make structural and restraint changes in response to our small overlap test,” Lund says. “Five manufacturers redesigned their midsize cars to enhance small overlap crash protection.”