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Crash test results from IIHS

After hundreds of front impact tests and side impact tests, now the Insurance Institute is carrying out both tests, one after the other, on the same model. So how will two popular models fare in this rigorous study? NBC's Lea Thompson reports.
/ Source: Dateline NBC

It's a new look at crash tests from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. After hundreds of front impact tests and side impact tests, now the Institute is carrying out both tests, one after the other, on the same model. So how will two popular models fare in this rigorous study?

The 2004 Toyota RAV4 and the 2005 Subaru Legacy are the first two vehicles to experience the double test. It's a one-two punch delivered in this high-tech crash hall at the Institute, an industry funded group that seeks to make cars safer and reduce insurance claims as a result.

“What we want are cars to be rated good in both our frontal test and our side test,” says Institute president Brian O’Neill. “That's the objective,”

O'Neill says tests like these can help predict how well you'd fare in a real-world accident.

“We're trying to prompt manufacturers to produce safer vehicles in high speed crashes,” says O’Neill.

Toyota RAV4
Up first is the RAV4. In the frontal offset test, the vehicle hits a barricade at 40 miles per hour. It's a devastating and deafening crash, but the SUV's safety cage holds up around the dummy.”

“We've got a very good occupant compartment, there's very little intrusion inside,” says O’Neill.

There are no major injuries. the RAV4 earns a “best pick,” the Institute's highest rating.

But how does the RAV4 do on the more rigorous, and often more deadly, side impact test? This time a barrier simulating an SUV or pickup truck speeds into the vehicle with a small size woman dummy at the wheel. 

Last year's RAV4 had no side airbags available, even as an option. It earned a dismal "poor" rating. Had the driver been a real person, she likely would have died.

This year, side airbags with the all-important head protection are available as an optional feature for an extra $680.

“As you can see, this bag really covers the windows very well,” says O’Neill. “This is the kind of airbag we like to see.”

With the head airbags, the RAV4 jumps from among the Institute's worst side-impact performers all the way to a "best pick."

O'Neill wants all manufacturers to make side head airbags standard equipment.

“If you're unfortunate enough to be broadsided,” says O’Neill, “it can make the difference between life and death.

Subaru Legacy
So what about the 2004 Subaru Legacy? It does come standard with front and side airbags. In the frontal test, there are no surprises. The legacy earns a “best pick,” just as it has in the past.

“They have a very good commitment to safety,” says O’Neill.

But this is the first time for the Legacy in the newer side impact test, and the Institute says it found a serious problem with the head airbags, called curtains.

“The curtains didn't deploy properly,” says O’Neill. “They didn't unfold and come all the way down. As a result the dummy's head was not protected.”

After that first Institute test, Subaru recalled 157 Legacies that had already been sold, replacing the airbags which the company says were installed backwards. Subaru corrected the assembly line problem and asked the Institute for another try.

With the fix, the head airbags work properly and the dummy's head is protected. But O'Neill says because of the car's design, the driver's torso takes a heavy blow, possible broken bones and organ damage.

If you were in a real world crash of this severity, you would not walk away,” says O’Neill. “You'd be hurt really badly.”

So, in the side impact test, the Legacy only gets a “marginal” rating, the Institute's second lowest.

Both of the cars tested meet or exceed all federal safety standards. The Institute's tests are designed to be even more rigorous.

According to O’Neill, the bottom line is that if you’re shopping for cars, study all the safety ratings, including the Institute’s front and side crash tests.

“You should be choosing a vehicle that is good in both,” says O’Neill.