For the first time ever, the Institute has chosen 10 cars, all 2006 models, that win Top Safety Pick awards. The awards recognize car designs that afford the best protection for people in front, side, and rear crashes, based on performance in Institute tests. The winning vehicles were chosen from among current models of small, midsize, and large cars plus minivans. There's a winner in three of these four groups. The winners include two large car designs, seven midsize, and one small car. No current minivan designs meet the Institute's criteria to earn a Top Safety Pick award. Pickups and SUVs weren't included in this round of awards because side impact tests of most of these vehicles haven't been conducted yet.
"Now that we're rating vehicles' front, side, and rear crashworthiness, based on test performance, we decided to give consumers an overall assessment based on all three tests. These Top Safety Picks are replacing our previous 'best pick' designations that were awarded separately for front and side crash test performance," Institute president Brian O'Neill explains. "The new awards mean that consumers can compare cars' ratings more quickly and easily. They won't have to review multiple sets of test results separately. And when we test new car designs as they are being introduced next year, it's possible that some models will be added to this group of 2006 Top Safety Pick winners."
Criteria to win gold and silver awards
Top Safety Pick award winners represent an elite fraction of the passenger car market. Winners of the gold award have earned good ratings in the Institute's frontal offset and side impact crash tests, and their seat/head restraints are rated good for protection against 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.
Awards are by car size class because vehicle size and weight influence occupant protection in serious crashes. Larger, heavier cars generally afford more protection than smaller, lighter ones. Top Safety Picks indicate the best choices for safety within each size class, but they don't mean a small car that's an award winner affords better protection than a larger car that didn't win a Top Safety Pick.
Almost all of the 10 winners are relatively new designs, and they all have side airbags designed to protect people's heads. This reflects the improvements manufacturers have been making in the side and rear crash protection afforded by their newer cars. Occupant protection in frontal crashes has been good in most vehicles for several years.
"This is one reason Volkswagen and Audi cars are 5 of the 10 award winners. This company has introduced 5 new designs since the 2005 model year and made the commitment to ensure that these designs perform well in Institute tests," O'Neill points out.
Top Safety Picks by vehicle size class
Among large family cars, the Ford Five Hundred and its twin Mercury Montego were new designs for the 2005 model year. However, only the Five Hundreds and Montegos with optional side airbags are Top Safety Picks. Another winner is the Audi A6, a large luxury car that was redesigned for the 2005 model year.
"The midsize group is the heart of the car market," O'Neill says. "About 40 percent of new cars that are sold every year are midsize, so it's good news that consumers have a number of Top Safety Pick choices in this size group. The winners range from moderately priced to near luxury models." Seven of the 10 Top Safety Picks are midsize. The Saab 9-3 and Subaru Legacy are gold award winners. The Audi A3, A4, Chevrolet Malibu equipped with optional side airbags, and Volkswagen Passat and Jetta are winners of silver awards.
The Honda Civic is the only small car among the 13 the Institute has evaluated that meets the criteria for a Top Safety Pick. It's the only car in this size group that has earned a good overall rating in the Institute's side impact test.
No minivans are among the award winners. This doesn't mean minivans are unsafe. It means none of the current designs the Institute has tested meets the award criteria. The Honda Odyssey, Toyota Sienna, and Nissan Quest are rated good for front and side crashworthiness, based on crash tests, but their seat/head restraints are marginal or poor.
Audi and Volkswagen models shine:
company made commitment to ensure good test performances
Almost all of the 10 Top Safety Picks are relatively new car designs. This is one reason Volkswagen and Audi cars are 5 of the 10 winners. This company has introduced 5 new designs since the 2005 model year and made the commitment to ensure that these designs perform well in Institute tests.
Every automaker had an opportunity
Earlier this year the Institute alerted automakers about the upcoming Top Safety Pick award and the criteria that would have to be met to earn one. The Institute offered to conduct an early test of any vehicle a manufacturer thought would be a candidate for the award. Thus, all current car and minivan models were eligible for consideration.
"A number of automakers requested early tests, and based on our discussions with the automakers we believe that no other models would meet our Top Safety Pick criteria," O'Neill says. A number of the major manufacturers including BMW, Mercedes, Nissan, Toyota, and Volvo aren't represented in the first set of Top Safety Pick winners.
How the 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 moving barrier 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 a 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.