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IIHS Toughens Up Crash Tests; Many SUVs Fail

mazda-cx-5-2021-exterior-crash-test-iihs 2021 Mazda CX-5 | IIHS image

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety has a history of making crash tests tougher, and automakers have a similar history of rising to the challenge. The agency hopes its newest test will further inspire the industry to make cars that are safer in a crash, though it’s clear many automakers have a lot of work ahead. Two years after it publicly considered beefing up its side-impact test, the safety agency debuted an updated, more stringent evaluation. Only one out of 20 small SUVs tested earned a good rating, the agency’s highest score (out of good, acceptable, marginal or poor): the 2021 Mazda CX-5.

Related: Here’s Every Car That Earned an IIHS Top Safety Award for 2021

IIHS says the new test is meant to address higher-speed crashes that cause fatalities. It crash-tested 20 model-year 2020 and 2021 vehicles using the new test, which simulates a heavier barrier crashing into the side of the vehicle. The previous test used a 3,300-pound barrier traveling at 31 mph; the new test uses a 4,180-pound barrier striking the test vehicle at 37 mph. IIHS says the new weight is closer to the weight of today’s mid-size SUVs, a popular class with consumers.

“We developed this new test because we suspected there was room for more progress, and these results confirm that,” IIHS President David Harkey said in a statement. “The good rating for the CX-5 shows that robust protection in a more severe side crash is achievable.”

The Rankings

How well a vehicle rates in the updated side crash is based on several factors: the structural integrity of the occupant compartment after the crash, injury measures collected from crash-test dummies sitting in the driver’s seat and behind the driver, and measurements on how well a vehicle’s airbags protect the dummies’ heads. IIHS found that the SUVs that earned marginal or poor ratings in the new test demonstrated structural problems, and their test dummies in both rows had major chest and pelvis injuries.

Out of the 20 SUVs tested, nine earned an acceptable rating:

  • 2021-22 Audi Q3
  • 2021-22 Buick Encore
  • 2021-22 Chevrolet Trax
  • 2021-22 Honda CR-V
  • 2021-22 Nissan Rogue
  • 2021-22 Subaru Forester
  • 2021-22 Toyota RAV4
  • 2021-22 Toyota Venza
  • 2021-22 Volvo XC40

Eight SUVs earned a marginal rating:

  • 2021-22 Chevrolet Equinox
  • 2021-22 Ford Escape
  • 2021-22 GMC Terrain
  • 2021 Hyundai Tucson
  • 2021 Jeep Compass
  • 2021-22 Jeep Renegade
  • 2021-22 Kia Sportage
  • 2021-22 Lincoln Corsair

Two earned the lowest rating, poor:

  • 2021-22 Honda HR-V
  • 2020, 2022 Mitsubishi Eclipse Cross (Mitsubishi skipped model-year 2020)

A History of Improvements

The new bar for side-impact crash tests may be high, but IIHS notes that all 20 SUVs tested earn good ratings in the first-generation side test — but that hasn’t always been the case across the industry. When the agency introduced the original test in 2003, only about 1 in 5 models earned a good rating; now, nearly all current vehicles have a good side crash rating, and IIHS says the progress has saved lives.

In a 2011 study analyzing 10 years of crash data, IIHS found that the driver of a vehicle with a good side rating was 70% less likely to die in a left-side crash than the driver of a vehicle with a poor rating. Fast forward to 2019 and side impact crashes were still a major problem: The agency’s study showed that side-impact crashes accounted for 23% of passenger vehicle occupant deaths that year.

“There’s no single reason why so many side crashes still result in fatalities, but these results provide a roadmap for specific improvements that can save lives,” IIHS Senior Research Engineer Becky Mueller said in a statement.

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What’s Next?

The IIHS test shows a lot of room exists for improvement, and the agency hopes automakers agree.

“Our original side crash test has promoted significant improvement in side crash protection over the last 20 years, but side crashes still account for nearly a quarter of passenger vehicle occupant deaths,” IIHS spokesman Joe Young told Cars.com via email. “The new test aims to push further improvements.”

How will the new test factor into whether a vehicle earns the agency’s two awards, Top Safety Pick or Top Safety Pick Plus? According to Young, the new test will be phased in over time.

“We will continue to run both tests for now since the original side crash test still factors into our Top Safety Pick awards through 2022,” Young wrote. “The new test will begin factoring into the award criteria in 2023, and at that point we will discontinue the original test.”

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