Earning Top Vehicle Safety Scores Just Got Much Harder – Which Midisze Cars Made the Grade?

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IIHS just made it much more difficult for automakers to earn the Top Safety Pick Plus rating for 2018. Here’s how.

For 2018, the Insurance Institute For Highway Safety, (IIHS) makes two substantive changes to the way it ranks vehicles for its Top Safety Pick Plus (TSP+) Award. The first relates to an important crash test IIHS developed called the small frontal overlap crash test. In this test, which NHTSA does not perform in its testing, a vehicle is crashed at 40 MPH into a rigid barrier. What makes it so difficult is that only 25% of the front section hits the barrier. This corner-crunch can bypass much of the structural meat of the vehicle making injuries surprisingly severe.

The test is about five years old now, but for 2018, IIHS is going to put two dummies into the vehicle and crash it on the passenger side. The Institute is doing so because a year ago IIHS tested a group of small crossovers on the passenger’s side rather than the driver’s side, on which side the test had always been performed in the past.  IIHS discovered that automakers were not reinforcing the passenger side. The RAV4 from Toyota exemplified the problem. It scored Good on the driver’s side, but Poor on the passenger’s side. Going forward, a score of Good or Acceptable will be required for a vehicle to earn the Top Safety Pick Plus award.

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In the first official round of testing, IIHS chose the popular midsize sedan segment. They ran 13 cars into the barrier. 10 scored Good, including the segment-dominating Accord and Camry. The Jetta scored Acceptable. However, the VW Passat and Chevy Malibu both scored Marginal, bouncing them from consideration for the TSP+ ranking. The 2018 Subaru Outback scored best according to IIHS.

IIHS told automakers in advance this change was coming. They have reacted by ensuring the structure on both sides is equally strong. What hung up the three that had trouble was airbag positioning and deployment timing. As the image above illustrates, the Passat and Malibu allow the head of the dummy to miss the airbags and strike the dash hard. We suspect they will adapt, but Tesla had a second chance at this test and still could not score Good, so we will wait and see.

Headlights will be the next challenge for automakers. IIHS began testing headlights in a state of the art indoor facility a couple years ago. The Institute has found that price makes no difference in headlight scores. The affordable Prius V has scored Good, while pricey models from Mercedes have scored Poor. The headlight rating was already part of the TSP+ requirement, but for 2018 a model must have available headlights that score Good, up from the prior requirement of Acceptable.