Are aftermarket parts as safe as original equipment? That's the question many consumers ask at the collision repair shop. Aftermarket parts are easier on the wallet, but debate has swirled for years over whether these third-party components are comparable to ones straight from automakers. For things like fenders, grilles, and bumper covers, the issues are mainly cosmetic — fit, finish, and wear. These parts don't affect vehicle strength in a collision and are irrelevant to crash safety, as the Institute demonstrated in crash tests as long ago as 1987 (see "Tests show cosmetic parts do not affect safety compliance," Nov. 21, 1987). Some parts, like bumpers, do provide structural strength. Neglecting to build them to the same specifications as original equipment could affect how much damage occurs in a crash or how well occupants are protected. New Institute tests point to the need for these repair parts to be certified as good copies of the originals, so consumers can buy with confidence.
The Certified Automotive Parts Association (CAPA) has been working on the issue and has just released a certification standard, CAPA 501, for aftermarket bumpers. The aim is to ensure that aftermarket copies match the dimensions, material, and construction of automaker-supplied parts. Until now, CAPA has focused on setting quality standards for cosmetic aftermarket parts, lights, and hoods. Prompted by requests from its members, including many insurers, the association is extending its certification program to include structural parts.
The Institute agreed to help demonstrate CAPA's new standard by testing 3 vehicles fitted with aftermarket bumper beams. A beam that conforms to CAPA's requirements performed the same as original equipment, while 2 other aftermarket bumpers had somewhat different outcomes.
Dodge Ram results
Engineers crash tested a 2008 Dodge Ram 1500 pickup fitted with an aftermarket bumper that meets the material, dimensional, strength, and vehicle fit requirements of CAPA's standard in a 5 mph full frontal test, plus a 40 mph offset frontal test, and then compared the performance with the same model fitted with a Dodge bumper. Results for both of the pickups were nearly identical. The low-speed damage estimate came to $1,120 for each pickup. Likewise, in the high-speed test both models had similar crashworthiness measures.
"This is what we expected," says Adrian Lund, the Institute's president. "It shows that aftermarket parts can be reverse-engineered without compromising safety. An aftermarket bumper that meets CAPA's new standard should perform as well as the original."
The Institute also crash tested 2 vehicles fitted with front bumper beams that don't meet CAPA's standard. A 2009 Toyota Camry with an aftermarket bumper that CAPA tests showed to be stronger than the original had similar estimated repair costs in the low-speed test as a Camry with a Toyota bumper ($804 vs. $792). But the failure modes were quite different. The Toyota bumper buckled at its center, resulting in damage to the bumper cover as the outboard edges of the bumper pivoted forward during the test. The aftermarket bumper didn't buckle, and as a result crushed the ends of the bumper support structure.
"The aftermarket bumper bar is thicker and heavier than the original," Lund observes. "That's not a good thing from a safety standpoint. Aftermarket bumpers need to perform exactly the same as original bumpers in a crash. Even small changes in design can skew airbag sensors and alter vehicle damage patterns."
Ford F-150 with aftermarket bumper
F-150 with a Ford-supplied bumper
A low-speed test of a 2005 Ford F-150 with an aftermarket bumper that doesn't meet CAPA's standard had lower estimated repair costs than a test with the stronger dealer replacement bumper ($1,777 vs. $1,909). That's because fog lamp recesses in the aftermarket bumper were wider than the original and shielded the lights from damage in the test.
Lower repair costs don't mean the aftermarket bumper is preferable.
"There's a difference between reverse-engineering an aftermarket part to the original specifications and re-engineering one," Lund explains. "You don't want to make it better or worse. You want to make it the same."
Why parts integrity matters
How structural parts are designed and produced can affect crashworthiness because these parts make up the front-end crush zone and safety cage. The crush zone absorbs crash energy, and the safety cage helps protect occupants by limiting intrusion.
Automakers typically use high-strength steel when building the passenger compartment and bumpers. On the other hand, aftermarket suppliers can cut costs by using weaker grade steel or substituting polystyrene foam for the high-impact polypropylene foam automakers use.
In turn, the collision market is a hodgepodge of domestic and overseas suppliers who build structural parts to their own internal guidelines, so there's no guarantee the parts are equivalent to original equipment in terms of quality and safety. This has long concerned some repair shops and consumer advocates, but the issue hasn't gotten much attention outside the industry.
The tipping point came late last year when Toby Chess, a national director with the Society of Collision Repair Specialists, took a reciprocating saw to a copycat bumper beam and easily cut through the steel during a trade show. Earlier he'd unsuccessfully tried to cut an original equipment beam. The industry took notice, with many insiders sounding the call for tests and certification of aftermarket structural parts.
Ford fanned the debate this summer when it shared results of internal evaluations of aftermarket structural parts. The findings, covered in Consumer Reports, raised questions about the performance of bumper beams, isolators, brackets, and radiator supports on the Focus, Mustang, and F-150. Ford's computer-simulated crash tests revealed potential problems with airbag timing in Mustangs and F-150s that were fitted with aftermarket components.
Consumer Reports warned owners against giving repair shops the green light to replace structural parts with aftermarket ones.
Consumers are right to be cautious, Lund says, because it's clear that structural aftermarket parts must be exactly copied to be sure they'll work properly in a crash.
"Aftermarket structural parts shouldn't change how a vehicle performs in a crash test," he says. "CAPA's new bumper standard is a step in the right direction, and we hope the group's work will quickly extend to other vehicle parts."
The use of aftermarket parts is growing, though parts from original-equipment manufacturers still predominate. In dollar terms per appraisal, aftermarket use rose from 11 percent in the 4th quarter of 2007 to 13 percent in this year's 2nd quarter, according to Mitchell Collision Repair Industry data.
Role of cosmetic parts
Often called crash parts, cosmetic parts include fenders, quarter panels, door skins, bumper covers, and the like. The source of cosmetic parts is irrelevant to safety because the parts themselves serve no safety or structural function. They don't affect how a vehicle holds up in a crash. They merely cover a car like a skin.
This was proved in a series of crash tests by the Institute and United Kingdom-based Thatcham (see Status Report special issue: cosmetic repair parts, Feb. 19, 2000). An Institute test in 2000 involved a 1997 Toyota Camry without its front bumper cover, fenders, front door skins, and other cosmetic parts but with an aftermarket hood. In a test into a deformable barrier at 40 mph, the Camry had the same structural performance and dummy measures as a Camry with original-equipment parts. In 1987, an Institute 30 mph rigid barrier test of a 1987 Ford Escort with an aftermarket hood and without cosmetic parts showed the Escort met all U.S. crash standards. Thatcham had similar results in 1995 in a 30 mph front-into-rigid-barrier test of a 1995 Vauxhall Astra without cosmetic parts.
Bumpers can match original equipment but some miss mark
Aftermarket bumpers may look the same out of the box as ones supplied by automakers, but tests show not all perform the same as original equipment. The Institute crash-tested a 2008 Dodge Ram 1500 outfitted with an aftermarket bumper that meets CAPA's requirements in a 40 mph offset frontal test, then compared it with a Ram with a Dodge bumper. Both pickups had similar crashworthiness measures and damage patterns, showing that aftermarket parts can be reverse-engineered without affecting safety. On the other hand, in 5 mph tests comparing an aftermarket bumper that doesn't meet CAPA’s requirements on a Toyota Camry with a Toyota-made bumper on another Camry, there were clear differences. The center of the Toyota bumper buckled. The stronger aftermarket bumper didn't buckle, and as a result the bumper frame ends crushed. Small changes in design can skew airbag sensors and alter vehicle damage patterns.
2008 Dodge Ram 1500 with aftermarket bumper
2008 Dodge Ram 1500 with Dodge bumper
2009 Toyota Camry with aftermarket bumper
2009 Toyota Camry with Toyota bumper