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How Safe Are Full-Size Cars?
Are full-size cars safer on the road than smaller models? Are they safer than light trucks? How important is size and weight in assessing the risk of injury in an accident?

The laws of physics are inviolate, so when two objects collide, the one with the greater mass — the heaviest one — typically comes out ahead with regard to sustained damage and harm to occupants. For this reason alone, it would appear that full-size cars have the edge in safety, compared to midsize and compact models.

But this isn’t necessarily so. Passive safety features influence survivability during a collision. Vehicle design, which can affect maneuverability, has an impact on whether a crash occurs at all. Because larger vehicles tend to be less maneuverable in an emergency than smaller ones, they may lag a bit in accident prevention. But reduced maneuverability might be offset by the fact that drivers of full-size cars tend to be more conservative in their driving habits, and thereby less prone to accidents. In other words, size is only one factor in the safety equation.

Crash Tests Help Assess Safety
Each year, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) crash tests selected vehicles at 35 mph by running them into a frontal barrier. NHTSA issues star ratings, on a scale of one to five, for all models tested and provides separate frontal crash-test ratings for the driver and front passenger. Side-impact tests are also conducted, and they come with separate scores listed for front and rear occupants. The highest score of five stars suggests exceptional occupant protection.

All vehicles sold in the United States are required to pass a 30-mph frontal crash test, but only selected models are tested at the higher speed. Many current full-size cars — especially luxury models — have been only partially tested or not tested at all in recent years.

Four 2004 full-size models equipped with side-impact airbags — the Ford Crown Victoria, Lincoln Town Car, Mercury Grand Marquis and Mercury Marauder — earned the top NHTSA ratings: five stars for both frontal and side impacts, which suggests top protection for all passengers sitting next to the vehicles’ four doors.

The 2004 Chevrolet Impala came close to those ratings, with five-star scores for both the driver and passenger in frontal-impact testing and four stars for both front and rear occupants in side-impact testing. The costly 2004 Audi A8 has not yet been tested, but the 2003 model earned five-star frontal crash-test ratings for the driver and front passenger, but the A8 did not undergo side-impact testing.

Three models got a four-star rating for the driver in frontal testing and five stars for the front passenger: the Buick LeSabre, Pontiac Bonneville and Toyota Avalon. The Avalon got a four-star rating for front occupants in side-impact testing and five stars for rear passengers. Both General Motors’ sedans earned twin four-star scores in side-impact crashes.

Four-star ratings all around went to the Buick Park Avenue. The 2003 Chrysler Concorde and related Dodge Intrepid received four stars in three areas but only three stars for rear passengers in side-impact crash testing. The 2003 Chrysler 300M and Concorde Limited earned one star less: three stars for the driver in the frontal-impact crash test.

Of the full-size cars that have been tested by NHTSA, the lowest score went to the 2003 Cadillac DeVille. Even though it earned twin four-star ratings in side-impact testing, the 35-mph frontal impact produced a three-star score for the front passenger and only a single star for the driver.

IIHS Crash-Test Results
2003 Lincoln Town Car
2003 Lincoln Town Car
The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), which is funded by the insurance industry, conducts its own tests by crashing vehicles into an offset barrier at 40 mph. Like NHTSA, the IIHS tests only selected vehicles; the results listed here are for current full-size cars. Instead of a star rating, the IIHS rates the tested vehicles as Good, Acceptable, Marginal or Poor and awards Best Pick status to those models (in bold) that test well overall. Click a listed vehicle to read its full review.
Good Acceptable
Buick LeSabre Chrysler 300M
Buick Park Avenue Chrysler Concorde
Cadillac Seville Dodge Intrepid
Chevrolet Impala  
Ford Crown Victoria  
Infiniti Q45  
Lexus GS 300/GS 430  
Lexus LS 430  
Lincoln Town Car  
Mercury Grand Marquis  
Pontiac Bonneville  
Toyota Avalon  
Source: Insurance Institute for Highway Safety
New Safety Features for 2004
As a rule, safety features appear first on full-size passenger cars — especially the expensive models. But on the whole, safety equipment isn’t high on the list of new features for the 2004 model year. Toyota, for instance, has expanded the availability of its electronic stability system to an additional Avalon model. Infiniti’s M45 gains a tire-pressure monitor, while the Q45 comes equipped with a standard rearview video camera and monitor for help while backing up.

Jaguar is making adaptive cruise control available on more versions of its S-Type sedan and has installed it on its redesigned XJ Series, along with reverse parking assistance and side-impact and side curtain-type airbags. Kia has given its new Amanti sedan eight airbags: four side-impact airbags for outboard occupants, two curtain-type airbags that run along the length of the side windows, and dual front airbags. Stability control is an Amanti option, but antilock brakes are standard.

In early 2004, the Lexus LS 430 will gain a new Pre-Collision System that cinches the seat belts if a crash is imminent and readies the Brake Assist system for increased braking response. Knee-type airbags and adaptive headlights that change position with vehicle direction are new for the LS 430.

Common Safety Features — Standard or Optional
Moderately priced full-size cars often lack some of the latest technology and safety features that may be available only in more expensive models. Side curtain-type airbags, for instance, are far more likely to be found in upscale vehicles than in budget-priced sedans.

Well over half of all 2004 full-size passenger cars are equipped with standard side-impact airbags, which protect the torsos and sometimes the heads of front occupants. Several more offer side-impact airbags as optional equipment or have them standard in selected models. Chevrolet offers an optional side-impact airbag only for the driver’s side of its Impala. Side-impact airbags for the rear seats are available only in a few models.

About half of the 2004 full-size cars have standard side curtain-type airbags that deploy from the roof to protect the heads of front occupants and, in some cases, rear occupants. BMW uses a comparable inflatable-tube system.

Until recently, the Audi A8 and Mercedes-Benz S-Class led the league in the number of airbags installed in a single model: each still has eight. Kia installs the same number in its new Amanti. The Maybach Type 57 and Type 62 ultraluxury sedans top that figure with four — rather than two — side curtain-type airbags installed, for a total of 10.

Antilock brakes are standard on most full-size cars but optional on several lower-priced models. About a dozen 2004 models have some form of electronic stability system offered as either standard or optional equipment. Several models may be equipped with a parking-assist system that issues a warning when you get too close to an object while backing up. A handful of parking-assist systems also sound a warning when you’re getting too close to an object ahead of you.

Electronic stability control in vehicles has become common in Europe and Japan over the past 10 years, but this technology has been slower to arrive in automobiles sold in the United States. “Every time we delay the introduction of these [safety] technologies, it costs us a few more lives,” said Phil Headley, chief engineer for advanced technology at Continental Teves, N.A., a producer of stability systems.

Headley cites a Mercedes-Benz study that found that stability control systems can reduce single-vehicle crashes by 30 percent. When a manufacturer doesn’t offer electronic stability control as standard equipment in its vehicles, Continental Teves tries to get them to offer the technology as a stand-alone option — rather than bundling it into option packages with other features. “It’s not that expensive,” Headley said. The next step is to incorporate steering control into stability systems so that vehicles have the ability to steer into a skid.

Cadillac is still the only automaker to offer Night Vision in a full-size car. Available for the DeVille sedan, the system projects an infrared image of the road ahead onto the windshield, which provides a view far beyond what can be seen with the headlights.

Why do some full-size cars lack certain safety items that other models feature? The answer is simple: cost. Automakers are constantly searching for ways to reduce costs, and eliminating equipment is one way to accomplish that goal. Compact and midsize cars typically suffer the most when cost considerations eliminate safety features, but full-size cars can also be affected. In contrast, most premium models from the likes of Audi, BMW, Infiniti, Jaguar, Lexus and Mercedes-Benz are filled with advanced safety components. Three premium full-size cars — the BMW 745, Lexus LS 430 and Mercedes-Benz S-Class — earned the maximum Vehicle Safety Discount of 40 percent from State Farm insurance in 2003. This discount applies to the portion of the premium devoted to medical payments and personal-injury protection. Pontiac’s Bonneville also warranted a 40-percent discount.

Safety is crucial with any type of vehicle, so crash-test ratings and other information need to be considered when shopping. While not conclusive, crash tests at least give an indication of the likelihood of injury or fatality if a collision should occur. You also need to know which important safety features are offered as standard or optional equipment on a vehicle you’re contemplating.

By Jim Flammang for
Posted on 12/19/03