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Status Report, Vol. 42, No. 11 | December 22, 2007 Subscribe

TOP SAFETY PICK awards for 2008 include 11 first-time winners

Thirty-four vehicles earn the Institute's Top Safety Pick award for 2008, including 11 new winners. The 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), which research shows can significantly reduce the risk of crashing.

Compared with last year, auto manufacturers have more than doubled the number of vehicles that meet criteria for Top Safety Pick. At the beginning of the 2007 model year, 13 models qualified (see "Top Safety Pick: 13 vehicles are cream of the crop for 2007," Nov. 21, 2006), but as the manufacturers have made changes and introduced new and safer vehicle designs, 10 additional vehicles qualified during the year. Now another 11 are being added for 2008. Designating winners based on the tests makes it easier for consumers to identify vehicles that provide the best overall protection for occupants in serious crashes without sifting through multiple sets of comparative crash test results and other information.

"For 2008, consumers have the widest selection of vehicles they've ever had that afford the best protection in the most common kinds of crashes," says Institute president Adrian Lund.

Front and side impacts are the most common kinds of fatal crashes, killing nearly 25,000 of the 31,000 vehicle occupants who died in 2005. Rear-end crashes usually aren't fatal, but they result in a large proportion of the nonfatal injuries that occur in crashes. About 60 percent of insurance injury claims in 2002 reported minor neck sprains and strains.

All current car and minivan models, small and midsize SUVs, and small and large pickup trucks are eligible to win Top Safety Pick. Eight vehicles from Ford and its subsidiary, Volvo, make the list of winners for 2008. Seven winners are from Honda and its subsidiary, Acura.

Crash avoidance is a criterion

The Institute added a crash prevention criterion last year to earn Top Safety Pick. All of the winning vehicles have to be equipped with ESC, which can help drivers avoid crashes (see "ESC reduces multiple-vehicle crashes as well as single-vehicle ones," June 13, 2006).

ESC is a control system comprised of sensors and a microcomputer that continuously monitors how well a vehicle responds to a driver's steering input and selectively applies vehicle brakes and modulates engine power to keep the vehicle traveling along the path indicated by the steering wheel position.

This technology helps prevent sideways skidding and loss of control that can lead to a vehicle rolling over. ESC can help drivers maintain control during emergency maneuvers when their vehicles otherwise might spin out.

"Vehicles should be designed to provide good occupant protection when crashes occur, but now with ESC we have the possibility of preventing many crashes altogether," Lund says. "If all vehicles were equipped with ESC, as many as 10,000 fatal crashes could be avoided each year."

Institute research indicates that ESC reduces the risk of fatal single-vehicle crashes by 56 percent and fatal multiple-vehicle crashes by 32 percent. Many single-vehicle crashes involve rolling over, and ESC reduces the risk of fatal single-vehicle rollovers by 80 percent (SUVs) and 77 percent (cars).

First time pickups are eligible

Pickup trucks haven't been eligible to win the Top Safety Pick award until now because the Institute hadn't begun side testing them. The Toyota Tundra is first to qualify. Pickups aren't as likely as cars or SUVs to have side airbags or ESC, and Toyota has made these features standard on the Tundra.

"Pickups are among the top-selling vehicles in the United States," Lund points out. "They're also more likely than in the past to be used as family vehicles, so it's all the more important to equip them with the latest safety features."

Rear crash protection improves

Crash tests have driven major improvements in the designs of all kinds and sizes of passenger vehicles. The Institute began conducting frontal tests for consumer information in 1995 (see "New 1996 Ford Taurus tops competition in crashworthiness evaluation," Dec. 2, 1995). Side tests were added in 2003 and rear tests in 2004 (see Status Report special issue: side impact crashworthiness, June 28, 2003, and Status Report special issue: protection against neck injury in rear crashes, Nov. 20, 2004). Most vehicles now earn good ratings in the frontal test, but significant differences still are apparent in vehicle performance in side and rear tests.

Some manufacturers have been working to improve vehicle ratings in the rear test. The seat/head restraints in the Honda Accord, Element, and Odyssey plus BMW X3 and X5 are rated good compared with previous designs that were marginal or poor. Audi improved the A3 from acceptable to good. Another 23 vehicles would have won 2008 awards if they had good seat/head restraint designs. Toyota could have claimed 10 more awards, including 3 for Lexuses. Nissan and Volkswagen could have picked up 4 apiece.

Another area of safety improvement is in side impacts. More 2008s include as standard equipment side airbags to protect people's heads. The Saturn was side tested twice. In the first test, the side curtain airbag didn't deploy properly, and the head of the dummy in the back seat was struck by the sill of the window in the door. This didn't produce high head injury measures, but head protection was inadequate. In response, General Motors redesigned the side curtain airbag to ensure more rapid inflation and better coverage of the airbag next to the dummy's head. In the second test, the fix was successful. The Vue improved from acceptable to good.

How they're picked

Each year the Institute offers to test Top Safety Pick candidates early in the model year. The policy is for manufacturers to provide reimbursement for the cost of vehicles if the tests aren't part of the Institute's regular schedule. Details about the tests on which the award is based are available here. Winners also must have ESC. Find out which 2008 models have this feature.

Also rans

23 vehicles would have won if their seat/head restraint combinations earned good ratings:

  • Acura RL
  • Acura TL
  • BMW 3 series
  • Chrysler Sebring convertible
  • Infiniti M35/M45
  • Kia Amanti
  • Lexus IS 250/350
  • Lexus ES 350
  • Lexus GS 350/460
  • Nissan Pathfinder (with optional side airbags)
  • Nissan Xterra (with optional side airbags)
  • Nissan Quest
  • Toyota Avalon
  • Toyota Camry
  • Toyota FJ Cruiser
  • Toyota 4Runner
  • Toyota Prius
  • Toyota RAV4
  • Toyota Sienna
  • Volkswagen Eos
  • Volkswagen Jetta
  • Volkswagen Passat
  • Volkswagen Rabbit

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