Tougher IIHS Crash Test Could Mean Fewer Top Safety Picks

By Kelsey Mays  on August 12, 2012

A new crash test by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety will likely reduce the number of coveted Top Safety Picks, and Automotive News reports at least two automakers have voiced concern.

On Tuesday IIHS will release the first round of results, which includes luxury sedans like the BMW 3 Series and Mercedes-Benz C-Class. The Institute's frontal overlap tests simulate a 40-mph frontal collision with an offset barrier, something that experts say better simulates a real-world collision with another car as the driver tries to steer clear. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's frontal tests, by contrast, use a solid barrier that isn't offset.

What's new for IIHS is where the offset occurs. The institute's latest test will simulate just 25% of the barrier overlapping the front of the car, as opposed to the current 40%. IIHS President Adrian Lund told Automotive News that one-quarter of the 10,000 fatal front accidents that happen each year occur because of the decreased overlap, as a car's wheels — not the energy-absorbing portion of the crumple zone, which is closer to the center — take the impact.

Automakers can ignore IIHS ratings, but a poor showing hurts a car's appeal. It disqualifies the car from our own Best Bets, for one. And crash-test ratings are a moving target. Highway deaths in the first quarter of 2012 declined to historic lows, but it that hasn't kept safety agencies from raising the bar. IIHS added roof-strength ratings to its battery of tests in early 2009, and NHTSA revamped its five-star crash tests in late 2010. Predictably, cars that earned top marks in both declined. In 2009, 94 cars earned IIHS Top Safety Picks. With roof-strength tests added, just 58 cars earned the award a year later. The same happened with NHTSA's five-star crash tests. Ninety-five percent of crash-tested cars in 2007 received five-star frontal ratings, a figure even government officials acknowledged was high. With NHTSA's new ratings, the number of five-star cars dove.

A record 115 cars for 2012 earned IIHS' coveted safety award, so expect the number to drop. Some automakers have demurred. Mercedes-Benz told Automotive News the test creates an "unusually severe and correspondingly uncommon accident scenario." Honda says it will design cars to meet the new tests but warned that the design updates could affect the ride, handling and gas mileage. Stay tuned to see how they — and others — fare.

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Senior Consumer Affairs Editor Kelsey Mays likes quality, reliability, safety and practicality. But he also likes a fair price.  Email Kelsey