The tough new crash test many cars fail

By Barbara Marquand on June 18th, 2013

A tough new crash test is giving automakers a run for their money.

In the latest round of testing by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, just two of 13 small SUVs passed. Late last year, three of 11 mid-size luxury and near-luxury cars passed, and 13 of 18 midsize family cars achieved an "acceptable" or "good" score in the new test.

Introduced by IIHS in 2012, the new "small overlap test" replicates what happens when the front corner of a car strikes another vehicle or object, such as a tree or utility pole. Most automakers design their vehicles to perform well in the institute's moderate overlap test -- in which 40 percent of the front end of the car strikes a barrier -- and the federal government's full-width frontal crash test. But acing those tests doesn't mean the vehicles will do well in the small overlap test, in which just 25 percent of the front end strikes a barrier.

When only the front corner of the car strikes another vehicle or object, the impact often misses the vehicle's main structural elements designed to absorb the energy from the collision, the institute says. The driver and passenger compartment then are at greater risk for collapse. This type of collision can also cause a vehicle to rotate sideways, which can move the driver's head away from the front airbag's protection.

20 vehicles earn an A-plus

To recognize vehicles that pass the new test, the institute introduced a new safety award category last year -- "Top Safety Pick-Plus." To earn that honor, a vehicle must earn good scores for four out of the institute's five crash tests, including the new small overlap test, and no less than acceptable for the fifth. Besides the small and moderate overlap front crash tests, the institute also runs rear, rollerver and side crash tests.

So far 20 vehicles have earned Top Safety Pick-Plus. The 2014 Subaru Forester is the first vehicle to ace every aspect of the new small overlap test. See the full list of award winners on the institute's website.

The institute also continues to award "Top Safety Pick" (no plus) to vehicles with good ratings in the moderate overlap front, side, rollover and rear tests, regardless of their small overlap ratings.

Safety research engineers expect manufacturers to rise to the small overlap test challenge and improve their vehicle designs.

"With the redesigned Forester, Subaru's engineers set out to do well in our new test, and they succeeded," Joe Nolan, the institute's vice president for vehicle research, said in a press statement. "This is exactly how we hoped manufacturers would respond to improve protection for people in these kinds of serious frontal crashes."

Safety ratings are important to consider when purchasing a car, not only to keep you and your passengers safe but to keep your car insurance rates down. A better injury claims record will eventually mean lower rates.

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