Luxury cars test poorly in new crash test

Linda Melone

A new crash test by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) has luxury car buyers questioning the safety of their vehicles – and how this new information might affect their car insurance rates.

The new test is known as the “small overlap frontal crash test.” During the test, the car hits a barrier at 40 miles per hour on the driver’s side only. This type of crash bypasses the sturdiest part of the steel frame and can push the steering wheel to the side, so the air bag misses the driver’s head instead of providing protection.

This potentially deadly flaw was found in cars made by Lexus, VW and Mercedes-Benz. One reason for the flaw? Efforts at making cars more fuel-efficient include making them lighter, less durable and more easily damaged, according to the IIHS report. While this helps with gas mileage, it tends to make cars rate poorly in crash tests.

Crash tests and your insurance

Poorly rated vehicles cost more to insure. Here’s why: The safer the car, the lower the ISO insurance number, which factors into your insurance premiums, says Kevin Lynch, associate professor of insurance at The American College in Pennsylvania.

Insurance companies use data from ISO, which collects data for insurers, to determine potential liability based on a car’s make and model. Higher numbers reflect a higher incidence and severity of claims for that vehicle. ISO numbers, which vary widely, also take into account the car's crash test rating.

It’s only part of the picture, however, Lynch says. Other factors such as the driver’s age (younger, inexperienced drivers pay more), driving experience and credit score all influence the premiums you pay for car insurance, Lynch says.

How much each factor contributes to the premium rates is a trade secret, Lynch says. “Each insurer assigns different weights to the different factors to determine who pays what and why,” he says.

Crash-worthy reasons for the new test

In the new IIHS crash test, vehicles strike a rigid 5-foot-tall barrier at 40 miles per hour, striking one-fourth of the car’s front end. A typical crash test has vehicles crashing at 35 mph into a rigid barrier with the full width of the front end of the vehicle.

“This crash replicates the kind of frontal crash researchers see in the real world, where only a small portion of the front end of the vehicle is involved,” says Russ Rader, a spokesman for IIHS. This may occur when two cars are about to crash head-on but one swerves at the last moment, or when a car’s front corner hits a tree or a telephone pole.

More than 10,000 deaths from frontal crashes occur each year, according to the IIHS, with many caused by this type of overlap crash. A 2009 IIHS study involving vehicles rated good for frontal crash protection showed that about one-fourth of the most serious accidents involved small overlap crashes.

Small overlap crashes differ from full-width frontal crashes in that the crash typically results in the struck object (such as a telephone pole) pushing further into the car’s interior, injuring the driver.

Vehicles that were rated “poor” (the other categories were good, acceptable and marginal) in the crash test include the 2012 Mercedes-Benz C-Class, Lexus IS 250/350, Audi A4 and Lexus ES 350.

So far, only luxury cars have been small overlap crash-tested, as they usually have the newest safety features. “The testing of medium-size vehicles is under way, and we expect to release the next round of results in December,” Rader says.

Rader says they expect similar crash test results, however. “Most automakers haven’t focused on this kind of crash scenario,” he says.

Raising the bar

The Association of Global Automakers, a trade organization, welcomes the IIHS small overlap crash test but thinks more research is needed, spokeswoman Annemarie Pender says. “We need to determine whether this new crash test is representative of small overlap crashes occurring in the real world,” she says.

In a statement, the automakers group says it stands behind IIHS’ commitment to vehicle safety and agrees that consumers should have accurate information to make educated buying decisions.

Luxury car automakers already have plans in place to reach this new standard, Rader says. “Automakers told us they’re adjusting side air bag programs on existing models to improve head protection, and structural changes to vehicles are also in the pipeline,” he says.

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