Car buyers who put a premium on safety will find they will need much less time to peruse the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety’s list of top picks for 2018.
Compared with 2017, only about half as many models earned a coveted designation as an IIHS Top Safety Pick or Top Safety Pick Plus when the institute released its list on Thursday.
Sixty-two vehicles have so far earned one of those two designations for 2018, down from 120 in 2017 — a result of several changes to the criteria. The insurance industry-funded institute tightened a measurement of the effectiveness of headlights and added a collision test intended to ensure that front passengers are protected like their counterparts behind the wheel.
The new tests cost certain models from some automakers — including General Motors, Ford, Volkswagen and even Volvo — the chance to use one of the IIHS designations, which have become an important marketing tool and pushed companies to improve their performance on the institute’s tests.
Adrian Lund, president of the insurance institute, did not see the drastic reduction as a bad sign for consumers or automakers.
“One thing I want to be sure that people are really clear on,” he said. “This doesn’t mean that vehicles are less safe than they were last year. Rather, we’ve raised the bar and we still have this many vehicles that meet the new criteria and are providing state-of-the-art protection.”
The added crash test — a passenger-side front small overlap test — is meant to mimic what happens when a car runs off the road and hits a tree or utility pole. Vehicles must get a Good or Acceptable rating in that test to qualify as a Top Safety Pick Plus.
Top Safety Pick Plus winners also must now offer headlights that earn a rating of Good, rather than either Good or Acceptable. For the regular Top Safety Pick designation, a requirement was added that headlights must be rated Good or Acceptable.
The emphasis on headlights makes sense: Walking away from a crash is good, but avoiding a crash entirely is better. According to the most recent fatality data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, nighttime crashes killed 19,274 people in 2016, more than the 17,907 killed during daylight.
“As we got into this area of headlamps, frankly, we were amazed to see how little light vehicles were actually putting on the road,” Lund said. “When we put these vehicles on the road, people couldn’t see very far down the road at night. This is a key feature of keeping people safe.”
At least one vehicle from every automaker received one of the awards, and the models that kept their Plus status cut across price points, including the Toyota Camry, BMW 5-Series, Lincoln Continental, Subaru Outback, Mercedes-Benz E-Class, Hyundai Santa Fe and Kia Soul.
But the combination of the new headlight requirement and the front-passenger crash test sent the number of Top Safety Pick Plus winners down to 15 in 2018 from 69 in 2017. The number of models in the second tier, Top Safety Pick, dropped only to 47, from 51.
But those numbers do not tell the full story. The new requirements caused a domino effect; many of the previous Plus picks moved down a notch to Top Safety Pick, and many previous Top Safety Picks dropped off the list completely.
Vehicles that slid from a Plus rating to a plain Pick rating included the Audi A3 and A4, Chevrolet Volt, Honda Accord and Odyssey, Nissan Altima, Subaru Forester, and Toyota RAV4. Some of the 42 vehicles that were in the second tier but are now scratched from the list include the Chevrolet Malibu and Bolt; Ford Fusion and F-150 (crew and extended cabs); Jeep Compass; Volkswagen Golf, GTI and Passat; and the Volvo S90 and XC90.
Some models were dinged over their performance in the crash test, but the bigger factor was headlights that the institute concluded either did not illuminate far enough down the road or emitted too much glare to oncoming traffic.
Some of the 54 vehicles that lost their Plus rating did well in the front-passenger test but did not offer headlights that met the higher standard. The Honda Odyssey minivan was one notable example.
Automakers were generally comfortable with the new standards. Honda said it “respects the evolutionary process of ‘moving the bar’” even though it resulted in lower ratings for some Acura and Honda models. Audi, Ford, Volkswagen, Toyota, Lexus and Subaru noted their commitment to customer safety and said they would work to meet the new criteria and to provide consumers with state-of-the art safety features. General Motors declined to comment.
The IIHS has every expectation that the number of vehicles earning each designation will rise, starting as early as January, based on talks with automakers.
The organization relies partly on data and video submitted by automakers — the IIHS provides the parameters and conducts its own audit tests to ensure accuracy — and some car companies did not submit data for the new front-passenger crash test. Audi, for example, did not provide data on the new test for their A4 model, but it would have fallen short of the Plus designation anyway because of its headlights. (The ratings for one vehicle often apply to other models if they are built on the same platform, and a test of a vehicle from one model year may apply to other years if the vehicle was not significantly redesigned.)
The IIHS has been conducting a front small overlap crash test on the driver’s side — a test not required in the federal government’s testing program — since 2012. Early on, automakers had difficulty getting high ratings because crash forces in this test are concentrated on the vehicle’s outer edge, which was not well protected by frontal crash-zone structures. Tests also showed that the driver’s head could miss the air bag in the steering wheel and hit the A-pillar if the side curtain air bag was too short.
Automakers responded with changes that earned better ratings, but the insurance institute wanted to be sure that automakers were making the same changes to the passenger side.
In 2016, it took seven small SUVs that had its highest rating — Good — in the driver-side small overlap test and crashed them on the passenger side instead. Only one earned a Good rating on the passenger side.
“I think most people assume that if the car has a good driver-side rating, that applies to the passenger as well,” said Becky Mueller, the institute’s senior research engineer who developed the test. “And who’s normally riding with you? It’s your loved ones.”
The test resulted in “a ton of questions from consumers asking, ‘When are you going to rate my vehicle?’” Mueller said.
Automakers appeared to have been paying attention. Of the 42 vehicles that have data for the new crash test, 38 received a rating of either Good or Acceptable. Three were graded as Marginal: the Chevrolet Malibu, Subaru Forester and Volkswagen Passat. One, the Toyota RAV4, was Poor.
While the headlight requirements held some models back, the new crash test results were a promising sign that automakers are keeping safety in mind, no matter which front seat you’re sitting in.
“Consumers want this information, and we want to make sure that they get the protection that they are expecting,” Mueller said.