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IIHS News | March 5, 2006Subscribe

New crash tests of midsize cars: BMW 3 series & Lexus IS earn Top Safety Pick, but new Ford Fusion disappoints

ARLINGTON, Va. — Crashworthiness evaluations for seven new or redesigned midsize car models reflect performance in the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety's front, side, and rear impact tests. The models include three moderately priced cars — Ford Fusion, Hyundai Sonata, and Pontiac G6. The other four models are luxury/near luxury cars — Acura TSX, BMW 3 series, Infiniti G35, and Lexus IS.

The best overall performers are the BMW 3 series and Lexus IS, which earned the silver Top Safety Pick designation for good performance in the Institute's front and side crash tests plus acceptable ratings for their seat/head restraint designs in rear tests. The Ford Fusion, tested without its optional side airbags, earned the lowest overall ratings. It's the only car in this group that didn't earn a good rating in the frontal test. It earned a poor rating in the side test and a marginal rating for rear crash protection.

"Nearly every car now earns good ratings in our frontal test," says Institute president Adrian Lund. "The Fusion is acceptable, which isn't a bad result, but it's not competitive with other cars in its class. Based on this car's side and rear evaluations along with its acceptable frontal rating, the Fusion is the lowest-rated moderately priced midsize car we've evaluated."

Sonata shows big improvement in front and side tests

The Hyundai Sonata and Pontiac G6 didn't earn the Top Safety Pick award, but their crash test performances improved compared with predecessor models. The Institute has tested two predecessors of the 2006 Sonata. The design for the 1995-98 model years was rated poor in the frontal test. The occupant compartment buckled, and major intrusion into the driver footwell area led to high forces on the dummy's left leg. Another problem was that the dummy's head slid around the frontal airbag and nearly hit the A-pillar between the windshield and front door frame. The Sonata design for 1999-2005 improved to acceptable overall, but its structure was rated only marginal in the frontal test. Forces on the dummy's legs indicated the possibility of injury, and the safety cage around the driver didn't hold up very well.

1996 Sonata:
Occupant compartment buckled;
major intrusion into area around the feet


1999 Sonata:
Structure improved to marginal;
still room for improvement


2006 Sonata:
Dramatic structural improvement;
space around driver dummy maintained


Frontal test of 2006 Sonata leads to recall

The frontal evaluation of the redesigned 2006 Sonata is based on two crash tests. A problem in the first test involved the driver seat. During the crash, the seatback failed to maintain adjustment in the position in which it was locked before the impact. This resulted in the forward rotation of the seatback into the inflated airbag. The seatback then moved rearward and after the crash was found in a semi-reclined position. Post-crash inspection showed the lap portion of the driver's safety belt was partially caught beneath the seatback adjustment lever and had likely activated the lever during the crash.

Hyundai engineers redesigned this lever for all cars manufactured starting on August 1, 2005 and recalled the cars made earlier. All 2006 Sonatas with this change are rated good for frontal crash protection.

"In the past, cars from Hyundai often didn't perform as well as many competitors in our safety tests," Lund says. "Structure is the key to providing good protection in a frontal crash because if the occupant compartment buckles or crumples, the safety belts and airbags cannot do a good job of protecting the people inside. The structure of the new Sonata is a dramatic improvement."

The Sonata also improved in the side impact test. The previous model earned the lowest rating of poor, even with standard front seat-mounted side airbags designed to protect front-seat occupants' heads and chests. The side structure of the old model was poor, and measures recorded on the driver dummy indicated that a person in a real-world crash of this severity could sustain rib fractures, internal organ injuries, and a fractured pelvis.

The side airbags in the old Sonata provided head protection, but only for people in front seats. For 2006, Hyundai replaced the combination head/torso airbags that deployed from the side of the front seats with side curtain airbags designed to protect the heads of occupants in both front and rear seats (seat-mounted torso airbags also are standard for front-seat occupants).

The 2006 Sonata is one of the few relatively inexpensive cars with side airbags as standard equipment. It's also one of the few to earn a good rating for seat/head restraint design for protection in rear impacts.

BMW and Lexus earn Top Safety Pick

Based on these test results plus results released last year, nine moderately priced to luxury midsize models earn the Top Safety Pick award for performance in front, side, and rear tests. Both the BMW and Lexus earn the silver award, but this award applies only to 3 series models manufactured after February, 2006, when BMW redesigned the head restraints to improve performance in the rear test.

"Results for the BMW and Lexus show that manufacturers can design cars to protect people in the three most common kinds of crashes that lead to injuries," Lund says.

Top Safety Pick winners represent an elite fraction of the car market. Winners of the gold award have good ratings in the Institute's frontal offset and side impact tests, and their seat/head restraints are rated good for protection from neck injuries in rear impacts. Silver awards go to vehicles with good performance in the front and side crash tests plus acceptable seat/head restraint ratings.

G6 improves compared with Grand Am

In contrast to the Pontiac G6's good performance in the frontal test, its predecessor Grand Am was rated poor. When the Institute tested a 1999 model, the driver's survival space wasn't maintained very well, the steering wheel moved up toward the driver, and a high head acceleration occurred when the dummy's head hit the pillar behind the driver seat. Intrusion also contributed to high forces on the dummy's right leg.

"The performance of the G6 is dramatically better," Lund says. The structure was maintained very well, there was minimal intrusion into the occupant compartment, and most injury measures were low.

This car is rated acceptable for side impact protection, but only when equipped with optional side curtain airbags designed to protect occupants' heads. All injury measures recorded on the driver dummy were low, but forces recorded on the rear passenger dummy indicated the possibility of rib fractures or internal organ injuries. Without side airbags, the G6 is rated poor in the side test. This car earns the second-lowest rating of marginal for rear crash protection.

New Fusion isn't up to par with midsize competitors

The Ford Fusion/Mercury Milan is among only two current midsize car designs (the other is the Dodge Stratus/Chrysler Sebring) that don't earn the highest rating of good in the Institute's frontal offset crash test. The Fusion without optional side airbags is rated poor for side crash protection, and it earned a marginal rating for rear crash protection.

"The Fusion is a disappointment because it's a brand new design," Lund says. "Ford has done a good job with some other recent models, but the Fusion is at the back of the pack among midsize cars for overall safety performance." In Fusions manufactured after January, Ford added a structure below the accelerator pedal designed to reduce injury risk to the right leg and foot in frontal offset crashes.

"This fix didn't work in our test," Lund says. "Forces recorded on the dummy's right leg were high, and a metal pin broke in the dummy's ankle. Ford is doing more research to find a solution and has indicated it will ask the Institute to retest the Fusion for frontal crash performance later this year."

The Fusion earned the lowest rating of poor in the side impact test. Without side airbags, injury measures recorded on the driver dummy indicated that serious head injuries would be possible in a real-world crash of similar severity. Measures from other parts of the dummy indicated that rib fractures or internal organ injuries and a fractured pelvis also would be likely.

"The side structure of the Fusion held up reasonably well in the crash test, and this car's structural rating of acceptable is better than some other midsize models we've tested," Lund points out. Protection in the rear seat was reasonably good. The head of the dummy in the rear seat struck the pillar behind the rear door. This area is required by federal standard to provide some protection for an occupant's head, but the Fusion is rated poor overall because of high forces recorded on the driver dummy's head, pelvis, and torso.

The Fusion's side airbags aren't standard equipment, and the Institute's policy is to test vehicles without these airbags if they're optional. Manufacturers who want a second test with side airbags have to reimburse the Institute for the cost of the vehicle. Initially, Ford didn't request a second test of the Fusion with optional side airbags.

"Usually when an automaker doesn't ask for the optional test, we presume it means the side airbags wouldn't help much to improve the car's rating," explains Lund. "But now Ford has requested a second test, so the Fusion with side airbags may earn a better rating than poor. We'll conduct the test and report the result."

How vehicles are evaluated

The Institute's frontal crashworthiness evaluations are based on results of frontal offset crash tests at 40 mph. Each vehicle's overall evaluation is based on measurements of intrusion into the occupant compartment, injury measures from a Hybrid III dummy in the driver seat, and analysis of slow-motion film to assess how well the restraint system controlled dummy movement during the test.

Each vehicle's overall side evaluation is based on performance in a crash test in which the side of the vehicle is struck by a barrier moving at 31 mph and representing the front end of a pickup or SUV. Ratings reflect injury measures recorded on two instrumented SID-IIs dummies, assessment of head protection countermeasures, and the vehicle's structural performance during the impact. Injury measures obtained from the two dummies, one in the driver seat and the other in the rear seat behind the driver, are used to determine the likelihood that the driver and/or passenger in a real-world crash would have sustained serious injury to various body regions. The movements and contacts of the dummies' heads during the crash also are evaluated. Structural performance is based on measurements indicating the amount of B-pillar intrusion into the occupant compartment.

Rear crash protection is rated according to a two-step procedure. Starting points for the ratings are measurements of head restraint geometry — the height of a restraint and its horizontal distance behind the back of the head of an average-size man. Seats with good or acceptable restraint geometry are tested dynamically using a dummy that measures forces on the neck. This test simulates a collision in which a stationary vehicle is struck in the rear at 20 mph. Seats without good or acceptable geometry are rated poor overall because they cannot be positioned to protect many people.

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