As more cars and trucks score top marks on industry crash tests, critics charge that it's becoming difficult for consumers to identify which of the over 200 models on the market are inherently "safer" than others.
To that end, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety in Arlington, Virginia, is raising the proverbial bar by adding a new evaluation system to its arsenal of exams, which already include front, side, roof strength, head restraint performance and the challenging small overlap frontal test that replicates hitting a tree or pole on the driver's side of the vehicle.
Added in 2013, a number of vehicles initially had problems with the offset test, but automakers subsequently strengthened their cars' passenger compartments and in some cases extended the bumper and even added larger side-curtain airbags to meet the stricter standards.
The IIHS hopes the same will result from a new passenger-side small overlap crash test after determining that while many vehicles did a superior job of protecting the driver under such circumstances, some didn't safeguard the front passenger as effectively.
As with the driver's-side iteration, the new passenger-side small-overlap test evaluates the crashworthiness of a car's outer edges that tend not to be well protected structurally by so-called crush zones, and also test a vehicle's airbags and seatbelts in more rigorous ways that do frontal tests. Crash forces in these types of collisions go directly into the front wheel, suspension system and firewall.
The first models to undergo the IIHS' passenger-side small overlap frontal crash test were midsize cars. While they fared better than did most of the vehicles that were initially subjected to the driver's-side small overlap test, of the 13 models tested, one, the Volkswagen Jetta, earned just an "acceptable" rating while two sedans, the Chevrolet Malibu and Volkswagen Passat, were ranked as being "marginal" (in both of the latter cases the passenger crash-test dummy's head slid off the front airbag and contacted the dashboard).
The remaining 10 vehicles tested were given top "good" marks for the passenger-side small overlap crash test. These include the 2017 Ford Fusion, Honda Accord, Lincoln MKZ, Hyundai Sonata, Mazda6, Nissan Altima, Nissan Maxima, and the 2018 Subaru Legacy and Outback, and Toyota Camry. The IIHS cites the Subaru models are performing especially well in the new offset test, with measures taken from the passenger's side dummy showing there would be a low risk of injury in a similar real-world crash.
"The midsize cars we tested didn't have any glaring structural deficiencies on the right side," says IIHS Senior Research Engineer Becky Mueller. "Optimizing airbags and safety belts to provide better head protection for front-seat passengers appears to be the most urgent task now."
It should be noted that while the IIHS says offset collision, as tested, can cause serious leg and foot injuries, they're not necessarily fatal. Being supported by the insurance industry, critics say the IIHS is looking to keep accident claims low as much as it is trying to save lives and prevent serious injuries.
And be aware that frontal crash test results, including the small overlap tests, can only be accurately compared among same-size vehicles; this means a top-rated compact car will not necessarily offer the same level of occupant protection as a larger sedan or SUV in a given collision.
Expect other new-vehicle segments to undergo the IIHS's new passenger-side small overlap crash tests in the coming months. Log onto www.iihs.org for crash test results for current and past-model-year cars and trucks.