The United States Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) is introducing a new, tougher side crash test to address higher-speed crashes that continue to cause fatalities. In the first tests of 2020-21 vehicles, only one out of 20 small SUVs, the 2021 Mazda CX-5, earns a good rating.
“We developed this new test because we suspected there was room for more progress, and these results confirm that,” IIHS President David Harkey says. “The good rating for the CX-5 shows that robust protection in a more severe side crash is achievable.”
It is also good to note that while the model tested was a 2021 Mazda CX-5, its strong structure has remained almost unchanged since this generation’s first release in 2017.
“Safety is a top priority at Mazda, and we have long researched how to protect occupants in side impacts,” said Masaki Ueno, MNAO vice president of R&D, design, and quality assurance. “We have studied real-world crashes and used computer simulation to consider body structure and load paths, resulting in the robust design that has existed in the CX-5 since the 2017 model year.”
Nine vehicles earn acceptable ratings: the Audi Q3, Buick Encore, Chevrolet Trax, Honda CR-V, Nissan Rogue, Subaru Forester, Toyota RAV4, Toyota Venza, and Volvo XC40.
Eight others — the Chevrolet Equinox, Ford Escape, GMC Terrain, Hyundai Tucson, Jeep Compass, Jeep Renegade, Kia Sportage, and Lincoln Corsair — earn marginal ratings. Two more, the Honda HR-V and Mitsubishi Eclipse Cross, receive poor ratings.
All but one of the tested vehicles was a 2021 model. Mitsubishi skipped the 2021 model year for the Eclipse Cross, so the 2020 model was tested. With the exception of the Compass and the Tucson, the ratings carry over to 2022 models.
“Obviously, these results aren’t great, but they’re in line with what we expected when we adopted this more stringent test,” says IIHS Senior Research Engineer Becky Mueller, whose research formed the foundation for the new test protocol.
The ratings highlight a wide range of performance among vehicles built to excel in an earlier version of the side test.
All 20 small SUVs earn good ratings in the first-generation side test. That’s true for almost all current vehicles, but it hasn’t always been the case. When the original side test was introduced in 2003, only about 1 in 5 models earned a good rating.
A 2011 study of 10 years’ worth of crash data found that a driver of a vehicle with a good side rating is 70 percent less likely to die in a left-side crash than a driver of a vehicle with a poor rating. However, side impacts still accounted for 23 percent of passenger vehicle occupant deaths in 2019.
To address those crashes, the updated side test uses a heavier barrier traveling at a higher speed to simulate the striking vehicle. The new barrier weighs 4,180 pounds (1,896 kg) — close to the weight of today’s midsize SUVs — and strikes the test vehicle at 37 mph (60 kph), compared with a 3,300-pound (1,496 kg) barrier traveling at 31 mph (50 kph) in the original evaluation. Together, those two changes mean it involves 82 percent more energy.
The honeycomb striking surface of the new barrier also has a different design that acts more like a real SUV or pickup when it hits another vehicle.
The new test reveals wide discrepancies in the degree of protection these small SUVs provide for the pelvis and the chest. Only five vehicles earn good or acceptable scores across the board for these injury measures.
In real-world side crashes, stronger structures are linked to higher survival rates. While all 20 small SUVs received good scores for their structures in the original test, only eight earn good ratings for structural integrity in the new, higher-energy evaluation. The B-pillar of the worst performer by this metric, the HR-V, began to tear away from the frame, allowing the side of the vehicle to crush inward almost to the center of the driver seat.
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