The Insurance Institute for Highway (IIHS) safety introduced a new, tougher crash test and released the results of the first round of cars crashed using the new standards. In a test of affordable luxury models, the IIHS found that the Acura TL and Volvo S60 best withstood the crash forces, earning a Good rating, while the Infiniti G sedan was scored Acceptable.

The Acura TSX, Lincoln MKZ and Volkswagen CC earned Marginal ratings, while the Audi A4, Lexus ES, Lexus IS and Mercedes-Benz C-Class were rated Poor by the institute.

These were all model year 2012 cars, which were for the most part not built with this type of test in mind. Volvo, according the IIHS, incorporates similar testing into its vehicle development, which is reflected by its car earning a good score.

New Testing Method

Because the test is new, IIHS will not use it when conferring its coveted "Top Safety Pick" award on cars for the 2013 model year. Instead, the existing system will stand for one more year while automakers adapt. Cars that fare well in the new test, called the "small overlap frontal crash test," will receive some additional recognition, along the lines of a "Top Safety Pick Plus" or some similar terminology.

The official name will be released later this year, according to the IIHS. Then, for the 2014 model year, the new small overlap frontal test will be part of the regular requirement to earn a Top Safety Pick from the group

If it seems like crash tests are proliferating, it's because they really are. The U.S. National Highway Traffic Administration (NHTSA) starting crash testing cars in 1978, with a test that basically ran a car into a wall at 35 mph.

The IIHS is non-profit agency funded by insurance groups. The IIHS started its own testing in 1995, with the offset frontal crash test, where a car strikes a deformable barrier that replicates hitting another car with only 40 percent of the front of the car on the driver's side, while traveling 40 mph. The higher speed increases crash energy, and the impact is concentrated on just 40 percent of the car's front, making for a much tougher test.

Since then, the IIHS has also added test for rear impacts and for resistance to the roof crushing in a rollover, each time tightening the requirements for Top Safety Pick. None of these tests are mandated by government, but carmakers view good scores on the tests as important due to an increasingly safety-conscious buying public.

Traffic Fatalities Down

Since 2001, the number of drivers killed in late-model cars has plummeted 55 percent, according to the IIHS, which it says points to the effectiveness of its program. With such comprehensive testing in place, another new test may strike car buyers as overkill, but Lund points to the fact that nearly a quarter of drivers killed in frontal crashes were in cars that earned a Good score.

"We still see more than 10,000 deaths in frontal crashes each year," Lund noted. "Small overlap crashes are the major source of these fatalities."

That meant Good wasn't good enough. The new test is like the offset test, but it's even more extreme. The small overlap test concentrates that impact on just 25 percent of the car's front end. Unlike the current 40 percent test, which lets cars channel crash energy into the car's main structure, the new 25 percent small overlap test sends crash forces through the front wheel, suspension and firewall on a direct path to the driver.

"These are severe crashes and our new test reflects that," Lund acknowledged. Indeed. The Volkswagen CC had its driver's door ripped completely off the car during the test, the first time that has ever happened in one of its crash tests, according to the institute.

Does that mean the new test is too tough? "We think this is the next step in improving frontal crash protection," said Lund.

Small Fixes

An analysis of the first crop of test results shows that most of the cars can benefit from simple adjustments to airbag programming and seat belts to better protect occupants in such crashes. On seven of the thirteen cars tested one or both the side air bag or air curtain didn't deploy because they have been primarily aimed at protecting occupants in side impact T-bone-type crashes. With some reprogramming, they can be made more responsive to the new test.

Additionally, of the six cars whose side airbags did deploy, four of them lack sufficient protection at their front, again because the bags were designed with direct side impacts in mind. So a slight redesign of the airbag shape will help boost these cars' scores without a complete redesign of the car.

That means car buyers can expect to see a rapid improvement in scores on this test, because software and minor hardware changes can have a worthwhile benefit. In fact, it might be possible for the software changes to be made to models already in production during their current model years.

New cars will be built with the new standard in mind, which will likely complicate carmakers' efforts to reduce weight, as additional reinforcement is added to the cars' corners to armor them against the small offset test.

American Honda already announced that the company will incorporate changes to its cars' crash structures starting "later this year" in response to the new test. The company rolls out an all-new version of its popular Accord family car in the fall of 2012.

We should know the results soon, as the institute plans to test family cars like the Accord, Ford Fusion and Toyota Camry next.

What this means to you: Crash scores seem a little more complicated this year with a new bonus score, but the result will soon be safer cars for everyone.

author photo

Dan Carney is a veteran auto industry observer who has written for MSNBC.com, Motor Trend, AutoWeek, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, Popular Mechanics, Popular Science, Better Homes and Gardens and other publications. He has authored two books, "Dodge Viper" and "Honda S2000" and is a juror for the North American Car of the Year award. Carney covers the industry from the increasingly strategic location of Washington, D.C.

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