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New model vehicles faced with a more “rigorous” battery of crash tests failed to do as well as they did in previous tests, according to the Insurance Institute of Highway Safety (IIHS), an agency whose Top Safety Pick award is coveted by automakers as a golden standard for vehicle protection.

In this round of testing, the IIHS continued its use of the small overlap test, which was introduced earlier this year. In this type of test, 25 percent of the car’s front end hits a 5-foot-tall barrier at 40 mph. The test simulates the impact of the front corner of a car with another vehicle, tree or pole.

Other overlap tests used before saw a larger portion of the front end making contact with the object.

“This crash test is a challenge for some safety belt and air bag designs because occupants move both forward and toward the side of the vehicle,” according to the IIHS.

When the IIHS recently looked at crashes with serious or fatal injuries involving cars that had been given good frontal-crash ratings, about a quarter of them occurred in small overlap situations, according to the Institute.

Family Cars Do Well in New Test, Get More Picks in New Safety Award

Family cars outperformed luxury cars in the midsize vehicle category when undergoing the small overlap crash test.

When looking at just the small overlap test, 13 of the 18 moderately priced midsize cars, meant for families, earned ratings of “good” or “acceptable.” Meanwhile, 3 of 11 midsize luxury cars tested got those grades for the latest exam.

Tests are graded on a four-rating scale of “good,” “acceptable,” “marginal” and “poor.”

The small overlap crash is meant to replicate “a severe crash,” according to IIHS, that relies heavily on air bag protection to secure the occupant from head and chest injuries.

The vehicle damage occurring when a car hits a vertical object contorts the car’s frame from the front and sometimes moving the steering wheel in a manner that the driver misses the deployed airbag.

“When [air bags] deploy, they don’t always do so early enough or extend far enough forward to adequately protect people,” the IIHS said in a statement. “The result is an air bag gray zone with gaps between what front airbags cover and what side air bags do—if they deploy at all.”

Insurance Institute Creates New Safety Award for Top-Performing Cars

The new safety label, Top Safety Pick+, goes to cars that get the highest “good” rating in at least 4 out of 5 crash tests from IIHS that now include the small overlap test, while achieving at least an “acceptable” rating in the fifth test.

Thirteen of 19 midsize car models got the Top Safety Pick+ award, with 11 of those going to family vehicles and two going to luxury vehicles. They are the:

  • Chrysler 200 four-door
  • Dodge Avenger
  • Ford Fusion
  • Honda Accord two-door
  • Honda Accord four-door
  • Kia Optima
  • Nissan Altima four-door
  • Subaru Legacy
  • Subary Outback
  • Suzuki Kizashi
  • Volkswagen Passat
  • Acura TL (luxury)
  • Volvo S60 (luxury)

IIHS said that it notified automakers about the new test before it was released, and five manufacturers have since “redesigned their midsize cars” in their 2013 class to address the small overlap crash test.

Those automakers include Subaru and Volkswagen, which redesigned its side air bag deployments in vehicles for “improved head protection.” Also, Ford and Nissan have made design changes to its 2013 models.

IIHS president Adrian Lund highlighted the four-door 2013 Accord as a vehicle that performed particularly well, after Honda designed its two- and four-door Accord models “to do well in the test.”

“The steering wheel stayed in position and that meant that the driver air bag was in position to protect the driver’s head and chest in the crash,” Lund said in a video review of the small overlap test. “Also, the side curtain air bag extends far enough forward to prevent the driver’s head from striking hard structures inside the occupant compartment.”

At the same time, some automakers didn’t do enough to catch up with the new safety test. Some Toyota models, for example, were highlighted for poor performance, according to the IIHS, which found that Camry and Prius V were two models that did not have enough side air bag protection to prevent intruding objects or head and chest contact that would lead to injury.

“Toyota engineers have a lot of work to do to match the performance of their competitors,” Lund said.

The type of car you drive is one of the top factors that car insurance companies consider when calculating your premium, and safer cars often mean lower premiums. Driving a car designated as safe by a rating agency like IIHS will not necessarily mean you’ll get lower premiums, since insurers tend to rely on their own internal claims data to make rating decisions. But chances are the types of cars that excel in IIHS tests will lead to fewer personal injury protection (PIP) and medical payments claims and will therefore have lower rates for those coverages.

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