Four Small SUVs Earn Top Safety Pick

August 20, 2008

Automakers are improving the crashworthiness of their vehicles and quickly installing side airbags and electronic stability control, an important crash avoidance feature, on more models, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. The Institute recently completed front, side, and rear crash test evaluations of eight small SUV models. For the first time, every model the Institute tested comes equipped with electronic stability control as standard equipment.

Institute ratings of good, acceptable, marginal or poor are based on results of front and side crash tests plus evaluations of seat/head restraints for protection against whiplash injury in rear crashes. The best performers, earning the Institute’s Top Safety Pick award, were the 2009 Ford Escape, 2008 Mitsubishi Outlander, 2008 Nissan Rogue, and 2009 Volkswagen Tiguan. The four models earned good ratings in all three of the Institute’s evaluations, and all are equipped with standard electronic stability control and side airbags. The Escape’s ratings also apply to the hybrid version, which is sold as the Mercury Mariner and Mazda Tribute as well as the Escape.

Consumers now have multiple hybrid SUVs earning Top Safety Pick to choose from. Others include the midsize Saturn Vue and Toyota Highlander, which the Institute evaluated earlier.

“In the latest tests, the Tiguan’s performance is a standout,” said Institute president Adrian Lund. “It sailed through the front and side crash tests without a single downgrade for structure or measures of injury likelihood recorded on the dummy. This is 1-of-4 models in this group that afford superior crash protection in their class. This is a huge change from just five years ago when most small SUVs were rated either marginal or poor in our side test, and standard side airbags and electronic stability control were rare.”

IIHS says electronic stability control is important because it can help drivers avoid many crashes. It helps drivers maintain control in the worst situation — loss of control at high speed — by engaging automatically when it senses vehicle instability and helping to bring a vehicle back into the intended line of travel, often without the driver knowing anything is wrong. This feature lowers the risk of a fatal single-vehicle crash by about half, IIHS said. It lowers the risk of a fatal single-vehicle rollover crash by as much as 70 percent.

An exception in the test was the two-door 2008 Jeep Wrangler, which was tested without its optional side airbags. The previous version of the Wrangler, in which side airbags weren’t available, earned a rating of marginal for protection in side crashes, and the new model performed even worse, earning the lowest rating of poor. A new problem was that the driver door opened during the impact. This didn’t significantly affect the movement of the dummy during the test, but an open door in a crash could lead to partial or complete ejection of occupants, IIHS said.

“Most vehicles are being improved,” Lund said. “We’ve rarely seen a vehicle go in the wrong direction and get a worse rating after it has been redesigned.”

The Wrangler and Chevrolet Equinox, also a 2008 model, were the only two vehicles tested without standard side airbags. The Jeep Patriot does have standard curtain airbags, but additional torso airbags designed to protect an occupant’s chest and abdomen are optional.

When side airbags are optional, the Institute’s policy is to test without the option because this is how most of the vehicles will be sold. General Motors didn’t request a second test of the Equinox, also sold as the Pontiac Torrent. Curtain airbags will be standard in the 2009 Equinox, and that vehicle will be tested later this year.

“Since they didn’t ask us to test the 2008 Equinox with its optional side airbags, we have to assume it means GM didn’t expect it to perform much better, even with the option,” Lund pointed out.

Chrysler didn’t request another test of the Wrangler with the optional side airbags, but the automaker did request a second test of the Jeep Patriot with optional torso airbags. When tested with the standard curtain airbags only, the Patriot earned the second-lowest rating of marginal. While the curtains did a good job of keeping the driver and rear passenger dummies’ heads from being struck by the barrier or hard structures inside the vehicle, forces on the driver dummy indicated that rib fractures and internal organ injuries would be likely in a real-world crash of this severity, IIHS said. In the second side test of the Patriot with the optional seat-mounted torso airbags, the vehicle’s rating improved to good.

For more information on the testing and results, visit

Source: IIHS

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