Crashing a car once seems unlucky. Crashing it twice is bordering on reckless. But to crash it more than 12,000 times? That must be Ford.

As part of a safety program for the upcoming 2012 Ford Focus, the company’s engineers in the United States and Germany performed at least 12,000 impact tests. Not all of them were in the real world. Many were carried out in the less wasteful virtual world, especially in the early days of the project.

“Developing the Focus to meet global standards has resulted in improved crash performance to help protect occupants,” said Matt Niesluchowski, Focus safety manager. By simulating crash tests in the digital realm, which are becoming more and more realistic, it allowed Ford to try out many configurations. “We are using more computer simulations than ever to optimize the designs of all the components that help enhance safety,” said Niesluchowski.

However, when metal meets metal (or concrete), software can only go so far. “The complexity of crash tests, with hundreds of parts and systems interacting, still requires physical testing to validate those simulation results,” said Niesluchowski.

At least Ford has learned a lot and applied those lessons to its new compact car. The body shell is 55 percent high-strength steel; more than 31 percent of its frame is ultra-high-strength steel. Torsional rigidity is 25 percent greater than the outgoing model. But it isn’t just brute force involved. Instead, there’s a process called “tailor-rolling” where metal components’ thicknesses will vary, the biggest areas being the ones that must withstand the greatest forces. Not only does this allow the car to meet tough crash test regulations around the world, it also saves some weight – a crucial aspect of fuel economy.

Another clever aspect is the use of intelligent airbags. A new design for the driver’s airbag has a curve that lessens the impact on the chest ribs during a front-end collision. The side airbags are vented, reducing pressure on smaller passengers, yet retaining their inflation for taller occupants. And the 2012 Focus will be the first Ford to feature front passenger airbags with adaptive venting. They have been designed to provide better head and neck protection by matching the force of their deployment with the passenger’s size.

The 2012 Ford Focus comes out early in 2011. Pricing has not been announced yet, but the most basic soon-to-be-replaced model starts at $16,640, which might be a useful ballpark.

author photo

Colin Ryan has driven hundreds of cars thousands of miles while writing for BBC Top Gear magazine, Popular Mechanics, the Los Angeles Times, European Car, Import Tuner and many other publications, websites, TV shows, etc.

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