Insurance Institute for Highway Safety Names Side Impact ‘Best Picks’

June 6, 2005

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety named the 2005 model midsize sedans, the Audi A4 with standard side airbags and the Chevrolet Malibu equipped with optional side airbags as “best picks” with good ratings in side impact crash tests. The Volvo S60 earned the second highest rating of acceptable, and the Suzuki Verona and Nissan Maxima were marginal in the side impact tests. No vehicle in this group was rated poor.

The A4, which also is a “best pick” in the Institute’s frontal offset crash test, becomes only the second car to earn this designation in both tests. Along with the Saab 9-3, it’s a “double best pick.”

“The Institute’s side impact test is severe, reflecting what happens when vehicles are hit in the side by a pickup or SUV,” said Adrian Lund, IIHS chief operating officer . “These latest test results show that more and more manufacturers are improving their vehicles to better protect occupants in side impact crashes.”

The Institute now rates nine midsize car designs good for side impact protection.

Five more midsize models will be tested in side impacts later this year. The Acura TSX, BMW 3 series, and Infiniti G35 will have new design features added to improve side impact protection. The completely redesigned Lexus IS 300 and Volkswagen Passat will be introduced later in 2005.

Institute test is more challenging than federal test: In the Institute’s side impact test, a moving deformable barrier strikes the driver side of a passenger vehicle at 31 mph. The barrier weighs 3,300 pounds and has a front end that is shaped to simulate the front end of a typical pickup or SUV. In each side-struck vehicle are two instrumented crash test dummies the size of a small (5th percentile) woman, one positioned in the driver seat and one in the rear seat behind the driver.

The federal government uses a barrier that represents the front end of a car. This barrier was developed in the early 1980s when cars represented most of the vehicles on the road. The height of the barrier’s front end is below the heads of the dummies that measure injury risks in side-struck vehicles. These federal tests don’t assess the risks of head injury from impacts with vehicles like SUVs and pickups.

The IIHS’s barrier is 12 inches taller and rides 4 inches higher off the ground. The top of it is at the same level as the heads of the dummies in the cars that are being tested. This is the scenario in real-world side impact crashes where occupants’ heads often are struck by the intruding hood of a striking SUV or pickup truck.

Based on the IIHS’s front, side, and rear impact tests, the Malibu with optional side airbags and Volkswagen’s new Jetta with standard side airbags are the two highest rated moderately priced midsize cars overall. The 2005 Malibu without the optional airbags is rated poor in the side impact test.

Volvo is acceptable: The S60’s performance was not as good as the A4’s or Malibu’s. With the standard curtain airbags, head protection was good. But forces on the driver dummy’s pelvis were high.

“Even though the S60 has standard torso airbags for front-seat occupants along with the curtains, a fractured pelvis for the driver would be likely in a real-world crash like this,” Lund said. “Volvo still has some work to do to improve the S60’s performance.”

Side airbags are important, but so is good structure: The results for the Verona and Maxima show that vehicles with weak side structures are unlikely to provide effective protection in serious side crashes, even if they’re equipped with head-protecting airbags. Both of these cars earned good ratings for driver head protection because of the standard side airbags, but the marginal performances of their structures contributed to high forces elsewhere on the driver dummies in both cars and on the rear dummy in the Verona.

Although the Verona is rated marginal overall, its performance is an improvement compared with the 2004 model. Side airbags weren’t available in 2004, and the car’s performance was poor in large part because the driver dummy’s head was struck by the intruding barrier, which produced high head accelerations.

For the 2005 model year, Suzuki added standard combination head/torso airbags that deploy from the side of the front seats. This time head protection for the driver was good, and forces on the driver dummy’s torso were reduced.

“Suzuki should be commended for making side airbags standard in this relatively inexpensive car,” Lund said.

A summary of results for all midsize moderately priced cars and midsize luxury/near luxury cars tested by IIHS can be viewed on the organization’s Web site.

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