Cars

IIHS recognizes 22 as top safety pick+; a 100,000-mile Leaf

EXTRA PROTECTION: The 2014 Subaru Forester is among the midsize vehicles to earn the Top Safety Pick Plus designation from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.
EXTRA PROTECTION: The 2014 Subaru Forester is among the midsize vehicles to earn the Top Safety Pick Plus designation from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.Credit: CarGurus.com

“We sure didn’t see that one coming.” That was the reaction of a carful of us when a compact hatchback suddenly materialized next to us on the sidewalk along Rte. 5 in Longmeadow the day after Christmas.

It happened in the midst of the sudden snow squall that quickly covered the roadways—unusually covering roads more than grassy surfaces—and created slick conditions and accidents that shut down Interstate 91 in the Springfield area.

We’d stopped at a red light as did at least two cars immediately behind us. We’re not sure if the hatchback didn’t get the red light message and was unable to stop in time or if it had slid down the steep driveway of an adjacent house.

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Either way, it was a reminder that automotive safety measures, from basic “buckle up” (we were) to the new collision warning systems, are important parts of today’s vehicles.

One of my frequent observations remains: “If vehicles broke down today as often as they did in the 1960s, traffic would be permanently gridlocked in metro areas.” We still have accidents to blame, though.

All of this is a preamble to talking about the 22 new vehicles that have earned the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety’s (IIHS) highest safety award for 2014: Top Safety Pick+. That plus sign (+) signifies a new level of crash protection: forward collision warning systems.

These systems use, at minimum, a warning (flashing dash light and/or buzzer) to tell you when the gap between you and the car in front is shortening too rapidly. More advanced systems employ auto braking with the intention of helping inattentive drivers avoid rear-ending the vehicle in front of them.

I’ve experienced the systems at work, usually with the flash/buzzer deploying just as I braked.

It’s reassuring. It also seems to make you a better and more alert driver in the same way lane departure warning beepers tend to encourage you to stay in your lane—unless the warnings aggravate you to the point that you turn them off.

But we digress.

A year ago, the IIHS continued its trend of tightening Top Safety Pick award criteria to include the “small overlap” test in which 25 percent of a vehicle’s front end on the driver’s side strikes a barrier at 40 miles per hour, replicating what happens when the front corner strikes another vehicle or stationary object.

That’s now incorporated in the traditional Top Safety Pick category. For 2014, 17 vehicles achieved that level in addition to the 22 that earn the higher Plus designation.

Plus designation vehicles have basic warning systems such as those in the Ford Fusion, Lincoln MKZ, and four Hondas all the way up to the sophisticated systems such as Subaru’s EyeSight Warning available on Forester, Legacy, and Outback models.

Eight models that didn’t earn the Plus award last year did this time, including the Acura MDX and RLX, Infiniti Q50, Mazda 3, and Toyota Highlander.

The Plus winners are (*built after October, 2013; **built after August, 2013):

• Small cars: Honda Civic 4-door, Mazda 3*, Toyota Prius*.

• Midsize: Ford Fusion, Honda Accord (2- and 4-door), Infiniti Q50, Lincoln MKZ, Mazda 6, Legacy and Outback, Volvo S60.

• Large luxury: Acura RLX, Volvo S80.

• Small SUVs: Mazda CX-5*, Mitsubishi Outlander, Subaru Forester.

• Midsize SUV: Acura MDX, Mercedes-Benz M-Class**, Toyota Highlander, Volvo XC60.

• Minivan: Honda Odyssey.

Long Distance Leaf

Steve Marsh of Kent, WA, commutes 65 miles each way to his job at Taylor Shellfish in Shelton, WA. He recently passed the 100,000-mile mark in the Nissan Leaf he purchased in 2011.

He estimates that he’s saved more than $9,000 in fuel costs in that period and credits both his state’s and his employer’s charging infrastructure for making it possible.

While many early Leaf buyers were making political (foreign oil) or environmental decisions, others approached their purchase with a practical mindset.

“Most buyers now choose Leaf for the simple economics that Steve recognized right away,” says Erik Gottfried, director of Nissan’s electric vehicle sales.

Green Car Finalists

Automotive awards and auto shows seem to go together. This month, the North American Car and Truck of the Year winners will be announced in Detroit.

The Green Car Technology Award will be announced at the Washington Auto Show on Jan. 22 by the Green Car Journal. In November, the publication named the 2014 Honda Accord the Green Car of the Year at the LA Auto Show.

This year’s technology award finalists include products from US, European, and Asian brands.

The nominees: Acura sport hybrid power train (SH-AWD); Audi 3.0-liter TDI diesel; BMW i3 carbon fiber passenger cell; Cadillac driver-selectable regenerative braking; Ford 1.0-liter EcoBoost engine; Honda Accord plug-in power train; Hyundai fuel cell; Mazda capacitor-based regenerative braking; Porsche plug-in hybrid performance powertrain;, Ram truck 3.0-liter EcoDiesel engine.

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