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Status Report, Vol. 41, No. 9 | November 21, 2006 Subscribe

TOP SAFETY PICK13 vehicles are cream of the crop for 2007

Thirteen vehicles earn the Institute's Top Safety Pick award for 2007. The winners include four cars, seven SUVs, and two minivans. This award recognizes vehicles that do the best job of protecting people in front, side, and rear crashes based on ratings in Institute tests. Winners also have to be equipped with electronic stability control (ESC).

Vehicles eligible to win are current small, midsize, and large car models plus minivans and small and midsize SUVs. Pickup trucks aren't included in this round of awards because the Institute hasn't begun to evaluate their side crashworthiness. This is the second year of the awards (see "Top Safety Picks for 2006: 10 winners, all equipped with side airbags," Dec. 17, 2005).

"Our crash tests cover the most common kinds of real-world collisions," says Institute president Adrian Lund. "Designating Top Safety Pick winners based on the tests makes it easier for consumers to identify vehicles that afford the best overall protection without sifting through multiple sets of comparative test results."

Tougher criteria to win

The Institute rates vehicles good, acceptable, marginal, or poor based on performance in high-speed front and side crash tests plus evaluations of seat/head restraints for protection against neck injuries in rear impacts. The first requirement for a vehicle to become a Top Safety Pick is to earn good ratings in all three Institute tests.

A new requirement for 2007 is that the winning vehicles must offer ESC. This addition is based on Institute research indicating that ESC significantly reduces crash risk, especially the risk of fatal single-vehicle crashes, by helping drivers maintain control of their vehicles during emergency maneuvers).

"The idea of tightening the criteria for the award is to encourage more vehicle safety improvements," Lund says. "Last year a car could win with an acceptable rating in the rear test instead of the highest rating of good, and electronic stability control wasn't considered. Now it's tougher to win, and some of the 2006 winners don't meet the criteria for this year's award because the manufacturers haven't improved the head restraints from acceptable to good or don't offer ESC."

In particular, the Ford Five Hundred and Mercury Montego, both large family cars, are good crash test performers but they don't have ESC, even optional. The midsize Chevrolet Malibu doesn't have ESC either, and its seat/head restraints aren't rated good. These cars won in 2006 but not 2007.

No small cars won this year's award. The four-door Honda Civic won last year, but most 2007 Civics don't have ESC. Those that do don't have seat/head restraints rated good for rear crash protection.

Three of the 13 winning vehicles for 2007 are from Honda, including an Acura SUV. Three winners are Subarus.

Each year the Institute offers to test early the vehicles that manufacturers think will be candidates to win Top Safety Pick. All current car and minivan models plus small and midsize SUVs are eligible.

Vehicle size and type are factored in

Top Safety Pick is awarded by vehicle size because size and weight are closely related, and both influence how well occupants will be protected in serious crashes. Vehicles that are larger and heavier generally afford better protection than smaller, lighter ones.

"The awards recognize the cream of the crop for safety in the vehicle size classes, but they don't mean a smaller vehicle that's an award winner affords better protection than a larger vehicle that didn't win Top Safety Pick," Lund points out.

SUVs qualify for 2007

SUVs weren't eligible to win Top Safety Pick awards in 2006 because the Institute hadn't evaluated the side crashworthiness of many of them. Now more SUVs have been rated, and 2007 winners reflect the safety improvements manufacturers have been making to these vehicles.

"In the past SUVs, especially the smaller ones, weren't good safety choices compared with cars," Lund explains. "Many SUVs didn't earn good ratings in our crash tests, and on the road they were more likely than cars to get in serious single-vehicle crashes, including rollovers, because of their higher centers of gravity. Newer SUVs perform better in crash tests and, when equipped with ESC, are much less likely to roll over. All but one of the seven SUVs that win our 2007 Top Safety Pick have ESC as standard equipment."

Recent Institute research found that ESC reduces the risk of serious crashes involving both SUVs and cars. The largest effect is in single-vehicle crashes, which were reduced 40 percent with the addition of ESC. Fatal single-vehicle crashes went down 56 percent, and fatal rollovers of cars and SUVs were reduced by about 80 percent.

Vehicle changes are made to win

Crash tests have driven major improvements in the designs of all kinds and sizes of passenger vehicles. The Institute began frontal crash tests for consumer information in 1995. Side tests were added in 2003, and the following year a dynamic test to evaluate rear crash protection was introduced. Most vehicles now earn good ratings in the Institute's frontal test, but significant differences still are apparent in the performances of vehicles in side and rear crashes.

Some manufacturers improved their vehicles specifically to earn Top Safety Pick awards. Audi redesigned the seat/head restraints in the A4 and A6 to improve performance in the Institute's rear test. Subaru accelerated plans to offer ESC in some versions of the Forester and Legacy.

"But ESC isn't on every version of these two Subarus. Initially it's only on the sporty or pricier models. It's disappointing that Subaru didn't add ESC across the board," Lund says. The company plans to expand ESC availability later.

Other vehicles are in the process of being changed to earn Top Safety Pick status. For example, Ford will add ESC to 2008 Freestyles, so when this SUV is introduced next year it will qualify. Automakers also have been adding standard side airbags with head protection, even though government regulations don't require them. All 2007 award winners have standard side airbags.

Seventeen other vehicles would have won 2007 Top Safety Pick awards if they had good seat/head restraint designs. Toyota could have claimed nine awards, including three Lexus winners. Honda could have picked up four additional awards, including one for an Acura.

"Protection in rear crashes is an area where many vehicles lag behind in safety," Lund notes. "As manufacturers continue to improve seat/head restraints, we expect to see more winners."

New requirement: vehicles must have ESC

Electronic stability control (ESC) could prevent nearly one-third of all fatal crashes and reduce the risk of rolling over by as much as 80 percent (see "ESC reduces multiple-vehicle crashes as well as single-vehicle ones," June 13, 2006). This is why the Institute requires ESC, standard or optional, to win a 2007 Top Safety Pick award.

ESC wasn't required last year, and some cars that won the 2006 award don't qualify anymore because they aren't equipped with ESC. The Ford Five Hundred, for example, was a good performer in front, side, and rear tests. It won in 2006 but not in 2007 because ESC isn't offered.

How vehicles are evaluated in front, side, and rear tests

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 recorded on a Hybrid III dummy positioned 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 barrier that represents the front end of a pickup truck or SUV. The barrier strikes the test vehicle at 31 mph. Ratings reflect injury measures recorded on two instrumented SID-IIs dummies, assessment of head protection countermeasures, and the vehicle's structural performance during the side impact. Injury measures recorded on the two dummies, one in the driver seat and the other in the back seat behind the driver, are used to determine the likelihood that a driver and/or passenger in a real-world collision would have sustained serious injury. Researchers also evaluate the movements and contacts of the dummies' heads during the crash test. The structural performance rating 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 can't be positioned to protect many people.

17 vehicles came up short: protection in rear crashes isn't good

Besides the 13 Top Safety Pick winners, another 17 meet 3 of the 4 criteria to win. They earned good ratings in front and side crash tests, and they have electronic stability control, standard or optional. They would have won for 2007 if their seat/head restraints also had earned good ratings. But rear crash protection is rated acceptable, marginal, or poor. Among these also-rans, 9 are made by Toyota and 5 are manufactured by Honda. In addition to these vehicles, Honda reports that the seat/head restraints in the only Civic models equipped with electronic stability control wouldn't be rated good.

Acceptable rear crash protection: Audi A3, BMW 3-series 4dr, and Lexus IS 250/350

Marginal rear crash protection: Acura TL, Honda Odyssey, Lexus ES 350 and GS 350, and Toyota Camry, FJ Cruiser, Prius, and RAV4

Poor rear crash protection: Honda Accord 4dr, Infiniti M35, Nissan Quest, and Toyota Avalon and Sienna

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