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Status Report, Vol. 37, No. 3 | March 16, 2002 Subscribe

Bumper quality varies for U.S., European versions of the same car

Volkswagen New Beetles sold in the United States look exactly like the New Beetles sold in Europe. But underneath the bumper covers, the parts that attach the bumper bars to the cars are different. Those on U.S. Beetles do a whole lot better job of preventing unnecessary damage in low-speed collisions — the kinds of crashes that frequently occur in heavy commuter traffic and can result in expensive repair bills.

In fact, the U.S. New Beetle is one of the best cars the Institute has ever evaluated for bumper performance (see "New Beetle's bumpers are excellent," May 5, 1998). It sustained no damage in two of the Institute's four crash tests conducted at 5 mph, and damage to the New Beetle was minimal in the other two crash tests.

The Institute, which routinely subjects new passenger vehicles to 5 mph barrier and pole tests, more recently conducted a series of car-to-car crash tests of Beetles at 20 mph. Two of the tests involved the front of a U.S. Beetle hitting the stationary back of another U.S. Beetle. Two more tests (same configuration) involved Beetles equipped with the European bumpers.

The results show dramatic differences. The fronts of the striking U.S. Beetles sustained an average of $2,389 damage compared with $3,217 damage to the fronts of the European Beetles. Rear damage varied even more — an average of $2,733 for the U.S. Beetles compared with $3,940 for the European cars.

What accounts for the better performances of the U.S. versions? The bumper covers are the same, and both versions have steel bumper bars under the covers. The difference is that the bars on U.S. Beetles are attached to the cars with mounts that can absorb low-speed crash forces and then return to their original positions, just like shock absorbers.

Only a few passenger vehicles in the United States are equipped with this kind of bumper to absorb low-speed crash energy. Besides the Beetle, the Institute has identified such parts on the Audi A4, Audi A6, BMW 3-series, BMW 5-series, BMW X5 (rear bumper only), Cadillac CTS, and Volkswagen Passat.

In contrast, the bumper bars on European Beetles are mounted with rigid brackets designed to collapse in a crash, sacrificing themselves to absorb energy and reduce damage. But these so-called crush boxes don't perform as effectively as the energy-absorbers on U.S. Beetles. Instead of crushing uniformly as intended, the boxes on the rears of the struck Beetles with the European bumpers bent upward, which encouraged major bumper over- and underride. This resulted in much more damage to both striking and struck European Beetles than in the corresponding crash tests of the U.S. Beetles.

These tests demonstrate that "cars with bumpers that can absorb the energy of low-speed crashes without damage, like those on the U.S. Beetle, reduce repair costs after a range of impacts," Institute president Brian O'Neill says. "The fact that the U.S. Beetle performed well in tests at both 5 and 20 mph indicates that cars that do well in the 5 mph barrier and pole tests also can perform well in real-world crashes at higher speeds."

A number of manufacturers equip their cars for sale outside the United States with bumper systems that are different from — and less protective than — the ones on U.S. versions of the same cars. "This doesn't mean the cars sold in the United States have good bumpers. Many of them don't. It's just that the bumper systems on cars sold outside the United States often are even worse," O'Neill points out.

Besides exemplary crash test performance, the U.S. Beetle has superior insurance claims results for damage in real-world collisions. Among small cars, the Beetle has the best damage claims experience under both collision and property damage liability coverages. (The former reimburses policyholders for damage to their own insured vehicles. The latter covers damage to other vehicles and property inflicted by the insured vehicles.) Such results reflect claims for damage in impacts from low to high speeds, but insurance losses for vehicle damage are dominated by low-severity impacts — the very ones in which good bumpers can prevent or reduce damage.

A European New Beetle might look like its U.S. counterpart. However, the design differences underneath the bumper cover can make big differences in how much it costs to repair the vehicles after impacts at low speeds.


European Beetle

European Beetles test

The Institute conducted two crash tests involving the fronts of European Beetles striking the rears of European Beetles. Impact speeds were 20 mph.

Euro Beetle rear damage
Euro Beetle front damage

European Beetles average damage: Front: $3,217 | Rear: $3,940 | Total: $7,157

Euro Beetle bumper structure

On the European Beetle, front and rear bumper bars are attached with rigid brackets designed to buckle in a crash, sacrificing themselves to absorb energy and reduce damage in low-speed impacts. However, these so-called crush boxes don't perform as effectively as the energy-absorbers on U.S. Beetles.


U.S. Beetle

U.S. Beetles test

The Institute conducted two crash tests involving the fronts of U.S. Beetles striking the rears of U.S. Beetles. Impact speeds were 20 mph.

U.S. Beetle rear damage
U.S. Beetle front damage

U.S. Beetles average damage: Front $2,389 | Rear $2,733 | Total $5,122

U.S. Beetle bumper structure

On the U.S. Beetle, front and rear bumper bars are attached with mounts that can absorb low-speed crash forces and then return to their original positions, like shock absorbers. Because of these energy-absorbing units, damage to the front and rear of the U.S. Beetles was less than to the European Beetles in 20 mph front-into-rear crash tests.

SIDEBAR
Most small cars have inadequate bumpers

Some automakers make bumpers that prevent excessive damage, but those are the exceptions, the latest round of testing on small cars confirms.

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