Crash Tests: Some Midsize SUVs Perform Worse than Cars

October 12, 2007

Results of crash tests for six sport utility vehicles show frontal crash protection has improved, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety based in Arlington, Va. However, the tests reveal significant differences in how well SUVs protect people in serious side crashes.

Among the worst performers in the side test are the Jeep Grand Cherokee and Chevrolet TrailBlazer, although both are equipped with standard side airbags. The front and side tests recently were conducted by the IIHS to evaluate how well midsize SUVs protect people in the two most common kinds of serious crashes. Rear crash protection ratings for these models were released earlier this year.

Five of the six SUVs earned the top rating of good in the Institute’s 40 mph frontal offset test. The Chevrolet TrailBlazer was the only one to earn an acceptable rating for frontal crash protection. Based on overall results of front, side, and rear tests, the TrailBlazer was the lowest rated current model midsize SUV tested by the Institute.

Performance varied considerably in the side test that replicates a 31 mph crash in which the striking vehicle is another SUV or pickup. Two Nissan SUVs, the Pathfinder and Xterra, were rated good for protection in side impacts, but only when they are equipped with optional side airbags. Without the option, those SUVs earned marginal ratings. The Toyota 4Runner equipped with standard side airbags is rated good, the Ford Explorer with standard side airbags earned an acceptable rating, and the Jeep Grand Cherokee and Chevrolet TrailBlazer, both with standard side airbags, are marginal, IIHS tests indicated.

“The performance of some of these models in the side test was surprising,” says Institute senior vice president David Zuby. “SUVs should have an advantage in side crashes because the driver and passengers ride higher up than in cars. People often think they’re safer in one of these vehicles, but many cars hold up better than some of these midsize SUVs in this test.”

IIHS noted that two of the six SUVs have side airbags that don’t protect the torso. The Grand Cherokee and TrailBlazer are equipped with standard curtain-style side airbags designed to protect the heads of occupants in front and rear seats. But unlike most cars with side airbags, those two SUVs don’t have additional sets of airbags to protect front-seat occupants’ chests and abdomens.

“Nearly every car with side airbags has both head and torso airbags, but the Grand Cherokee and TrailBlazer have head protection only,” Zuby pointed out. “Head protection is rated good in both vehicles, but the lack of chest protection and weak side structures that allowed a lot of intrusion contributed to high forces on the driver dummies’ chests and abdomens.”

The side structures of the 4Runner, Pathfinder, and Xterra performed better, allowing less intrusion into the occupant compartment. The standard side airbags in the 4Runner and the optional ones in the Pathfinder and Xterra include torso as well as head protection. Torso and head curtain airbags also are standard in the Explorer. While head protection was good in the Explorer, intrusion into the occupant compartment contributed to the possibility that someone in a real-world crash of similar severity would sustain a broken pelvis.

Standard side airbags are becoming more common across the vehicle fleet, but they’re standard in more cars than in SUVs, IIHS indicated. Among 2007 models, 71 percent of the cars have standard side airbags that protect both the head and chest while such protection is standard in only 48 percent of SUVs.

In frontal crash performance, some midsize SUVs haven’t been good performers in past frontal tests conducted by the Institute. Four of the models in this group improved compared with their predecessor designs. The 1997-04 model Pathfinder, 1999-04 Grand Cherokee, and 2002-04 TrailBlazer were rated marginal for frontal crash protection. The 2000-04 Xterra was rated acceptable. All four of the new versions improve to good except the TrailBlazer, which improved to acceptable.

SUVs are safer now than they were even just a few years ago, especially with the addition of electronic stability control, which is standard on all the models in this group, IIHS said. Still none of the six SUVs earned the Institute’s “top safety pick” designation because of low ratings for protection in side and/or rear impacts.

“If you’re in the market for a midsize SUV, there’s no reason to buy one with mediocre crash test ratings,” Zuby said. “Vehicles like the Ford Edge and Taurus X, Honda Pilot, Hyundai Santa Fe, and Subaru Tribeca would be safer choices. They afford good protection in front and side crashes. Plus they have good seat/head restraint designs to protect you in rear-end crashes. These five models, tested earlier this year, are our highest rated midsize SUVs, earning the ‘top safety pick’ award. If you’re willing to spend a little more, the Acura MDX and RDX, Lincoln MKX, Mercedes M class, and Volvo XC90 also are ‘top safety pick’ choices.”

For more information, visit

Source: Insurance Institute for Highway Safety

Was this article valuable?

Here are more articles you may enjoy.