ARLINGTON, Va. — The Chevrolet Silverado 1500, Dodge Ram 1500, and Nissan Titan are billed as workhorses, but the side crash protection these 2009 model large pickups provide is wimpy, at best. The trio earns either poor or marginal ratings in side tests by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. Even with side airbags, occupant protection in these crew-cab pickups is no better than marginal.
"The size, weight, and height of these large pickups should help them ace the side tests just like the other large pickups we've tested. Not these three," says Institute senior vice president David Zuby. "They perform worse than many cars we've evaluated."
The Dodge Ram with standard side airbags earns a marginal rating. The Nissan Titan and Chevrolet Silverado earn poor ratings when tested without their optional side airbags. The Titan's side rating improves to marginal in models tested with side airbags, while the Silverado's optional side airbags don't improve the rating over models without them. The Silverado's ratings also apply to its twin, the GMC Sierra 1500, both of which were redesigned in 2007, so the ratings apply to 2007-09 models. The Ram is a new design for the 2009 model year. The Titan was introduced in the 2004 model year, so results apply to 2004-09 models.
The Institute's side tests assess occupant protection in vehicles struck in the side by SUVs or pickups. Results can be compared across vehicle type and weight categories, while frontal crash test ratings can't. This is because the kinetic energy involved in the side test depends on the weight and speed of the moving barrier, which are the same in every test. In contrast, the kinetic energy involved in the frontal crash test against an immovable barrier depends on the test vehicle's speed and weight.
The Ram, Titan, and Silverado should have an advantage in side crash tests over smaller vehicles, not just because of their size and weight but also because the dummies' higher seating positions put their heads and shoulders above the striking barrier. Occupants of cars, for instance, are more vulnerable because their bodies are in line with the fronts of vehicles, especially tall ones, which might hit them in the side.
"These large pickups don't have to work as hard as smaller vehicles do to protect their occupants. Even with their characteristic advantages, the Ram, Titan, and Silverado still miss the mark when it comes to occupant protection in side crashes," Zuby says.
Without side torso airbags, occupants are vulnerable
What's behind the lackluster performance? In the Silverado's case, it's a combination of a poor side structure plus the lack of side torso airbags. The truck's optional side curtain airbags are designed to protect occupants' heads, and these worked well. But occupants' upper bodies remain unprotected even with the optional side curtains.
"In the Silverado tests, there was a lot of intrusion into the occupant compartment. With no torso airbags to protect the driver and rear passenger, measures recorded on the test dummies showed that rib fractures and internal organ injuries would be likely in a real-world crash of similar severity," Zuby explains. "Chevy needs to improve the Silverado's side structure, as well as add padding or torso airbags to better protect its occupants."
In contrast, the Ram and Titan's side structures are designed to better limit intrusion. The Ram's side structure/safety cage earns a good rating, while the Titan's earns acceptable marks. The Ram has standard head-protecting side curtain airbags but not torso airbags. Both curtain and side torso bags are optional in the Titan. Adding torso airbags might improve the Ram's side protection. The Titan could be improved with some combination of structural, airbag, or door trim modifications.
"It's certainly possible to design a large pickup that offers good occupant protection in side crashes," Zuby says. Three previously evaluated 2009 models are Institute Top Safety Pick award winners. The Honda Ridgeline, Ford F-150, and Toyota Tundra all have standard side airbags with torso and head protection and good-rated structures.
The Ram would be a Top Safety Pick contender if its side rating improves to good, Zuby notes. Dodge improved the seat/head restraints in the 2009 model to earn a good rating for protection in rear crashes, while the 2006-08 models earned a poor rating. Electronic stability control, another criterion to earn the award, also is standard.
How vehicles are evaluated
The Institute's frontal crashworthiness evaluations are based on results of 40 mph frontal offset crash tests. Each vehicle's overall evaluation is based on measurements of intrusion into the occupant compartment, injury measures recorded on 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.
Side evaluations are based on performance in a crash test in which the side of a vehicle is struck by a barrier moving at 31 mph. The barrier represents 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.
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. Seat/head restraints with good or acceptable 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 can't be positioned to protect many people.