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Status Report, Vol. 35, No. 4 | April 15, 2000 Subscribe

Passenger vehicles sustain huge damage in 5 mph crash tests

The Mazda MPV sustained more than $1,700 damage in the 5 mph front-into-flat-barrier test, including a broken plastic bumper bar and a major dent in the air conditioner condenser, which had to be replaced.

Seventeen new cars, all 1999 and 2000 models, turned in mostly disappointing results in 5 mph crash tests conducted to assess how well the bumpers resist costly damage in the kinds of impacts that frequently occur in commuter traffic and parking lots. Six of the 17 cars the Institute tested are previously untested midsize inexpensive models, 5 are midsize luxury models, and the other 6 are updated models the Institute previously tested.

In a series of 4 front and rear tests at 5 mph, the worst performers overall were the 2000 model Mazda MPV and Volvo S80. These vehicles sustained an average of more than $1,000 damage in each of the crash tests — front- and rear-into-flat-barrier, front-into-angle-barrier, and rear-into-pole.

"We were disappointed when our tests revealed the Mazda MPV had a very weak bumper," says Institute president Brian O'Neill. "In last year's tests, the Mazda Protege's rear bumper included a flimsy plastic bar that allowed about $2,800 damage in the rear-into-pole test. Stung by the negative publicity about this result, Mazda improved the bumper on the 2000 model Protege, and damage was reduced to about $500.

"Surprisingly the 2000 MPV, a brand new design, was introduced with an almost identical flimsy plastic bumper bar on the front end, which allowed more than $1,700 damage in the simple flat-barrier test at 5 mph," O'Neill adds.

MPV improvements are under way

After observing the MPV's test results, Mazda officials quickly went back to the drawing board, and the company already has a redesign of the front bumper in production. MPVs equipped with the improved bumper will begin arriving in dealer showrooms at the end of April. And in an unprecedented action, this automaker says it will "install front bumper reinforcement plates for vehicles currently in stock and for those customers who have already purchased 2000 MPVs." O'Neill notes that "this is an encouraging response, and we commend it. We also hope next time the automaker will simply install effective bumpers to begin with."

Volvo airbags inflate

In the 5 mph flat-barrier test of the Volvo S80 "we saw something this year we've never seen before," O'Neill points out. "There was about $500 damage to the front end of the vehicle, most of it hidden under the bumper cover. In addition — and this is what was so surprising — both airbags deployed, resulting in another $4,500 in repair bills. The Institute and Volvo are working together to try to understand the significance of the airbag deployment in this impact. Obviously, airbags shouldn't deploy in low-speed crashes."

Volvo's investigation leads the company to conclude this particular deployment was a rare quirk, and the automaker believes the test result won't translate into frequent airbag deployments in low-speed crashes on the road. The Institute is studying real-world crash deployments in S80 models, and "if low-speed deployments are rare," O'Neill says, "then we would agree with Volvo. But if we find many low-speed deployments, then Volvo should redesign the airbag sensors for the S80."

Volvo airbag deployment

After the airbags deployed in the flat-barrier test of the Volvo S80, the Institute began studying real-world crash deployments in this car. If such deployments are rare, the Institute will agree with Volvo's conclusion that the crash test deployment was a rare quirk. But if many such deployments are occurring in real crashes, Volvo should redesign the airbag sensors.

Midsize inexpensive cars

The best performer among all 17 vehicles the Institute tested is the Saturn LS, an inexpensive midsize car that sustained an average of about $200 in repair costs per bumper test. "There was no damage whatsoever in the front-into-flat-barrier test and very little damage in the rear, which is what we expect from a good bumper system," O'Neill says. In contrast is the Daewoo Leganza, which averaged about $650 in repair costs per test. This includes about $800 damage in the rear-into-pole test and more than $1,000 damage in the front-into-angle-barrier test.

Midsize luxury cars

As a group, these cars fared even worse. Besides the problem with the Volvo airbags, which multiplied the overall cost of repairs, the Cadillac Catera sustained an average of more than $900 damage per test. The car in this group with the least damage overall is the Audi A6. It allowed no damage in either flat-barrier test, but it did allow more than $1,000 damage in each of the other two impacts, front-into-angle-barrier and rear-into-pole.

"When you spend more than $30,000 for a new car, you ought to get bumpers that prevent damage in low-speed impacts like our tests," O'Neill says, "but two of the five luxury models we tested failed — the Catera and Volvo S80 are rated poor. Two other models are marginal, and only the A6 is rated acceptable."

5 mph crash test results

Front into flat barrier Rear into flat barrier Front into angle barrier Rear into pole Total damage, 4 tests Average damage per test
Midsize inexpensive cars
2000 Saturn LS $0 $138 $390 $295 $823 $206
2000 Nissan Altima $380 $17 $299 $668 $1,364 $341
1999 Mazda 626 $143 $526 $924 $178 $1,771 $443
1999 Chevrolet Malibu $656 $369 $588 $619 $2,232 $558
1999 Pontiac Grand Am $0 $256 $1,262 $947 $2,465 $616
1999 Daewoo Leganza $281 $413 $1,081 $799 $2,574 $644
Midsize luxury cars
1999 Audi A6 $0 $0 $1,012 $1,017 $2,029 $507
1999 Saab 9-5 $92 $116 $1,087 $803 $2,098 $525
2000 BMW 328i $0 $999 $759 $672 $2,430 $608
1999 Cadillac Catera $809 $660 $935 $1,358 $3,762 $941
2000 Volvo S80 $5,137 $347 $1,028 $1,550 $8,062 $2,016
Updates of cars previously tested
Subaru Legacy
midsize inexpensive car
2000 models $378 $92 $688 $332 $1,490 $373
1995 models $336 $304 $754 $710 $2,104 $526
Ford Taurus
large family car
2000 models $62 $0 $839 $634 $1,535 $384
1996 models $0 $0 $707 $671 $1,378 $345
Toyota Avalon
midsize moderately priced car
2000 models $326 $377 $656 $572 $1,931 $483
1998 models $486 $310 $693 $293 $1,782 $446
Nissan Maxima
midsize moderately priced car
2000 models $1,042 $339 $423 $734 $2,538 $635
1998 models $250 $177 $651 $323 $1,401 $350
Mazda Protege
small car
2000 models $174 $318 $1,017 $549 $2,058 $515
1999 models $174 $645 $1,017 $2,872 $4,708 $1,177
Mazda MPV
passenger van
2000 models $1,710 $1,031 $1,730 $1,198 $5,669 $1,417
1996 models $676 $1,387 $1,396 $560 $4,019 $1,005
Repair costs reflect January 2000 prices. Front bumpers on the 2000 Mazda Protege weren't tested because no design changes were introduced since the previous model year.

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