Most small SUVs fail the latest frontal crash tests conducted by the insurance industry, but oddly enough, they’re as safe as ever.
That’s because the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety updated the test so there’s more emphasis on ensuring the safety of rear-seat passengers.
Only the Ford Escape and Volvo XC40 earned the top “good” rating in this year’s test, released Tuesday. The Toyota RAV4 was rated “Acceptable,” while the Audi Q3, Nissan Rogue and Subaru Forester were rated “Not So Good.”
The remaining Buick Encore, Chevrolet Equinox, Honda CR-V and HR-V, Hyundai Tucson, Jeep Compass, Jeep Renegade, Mazda CX-5 and Mitsubishi Eclipse Cross received the lowest ratings of “poor.”
IIHS President David Harkey said testing is changing because vehicle architecture, air bags and seat belts make SUVs safer for front passengers than rear passengers. Right now, rear seat passengers have a 46 percent higher risk of fatal injury than front-seat drivers, Harkey said.
“Before we only looked at how well the driver was protected,” Harkey said. “It’s not that vehicles have become unsafe.”
The institute has a history of changing its high-profile tests to allow automakers to improve safety, and Harkey said they typically respond to those changes.
While seatbelts can restrain rear-seat passengers, they’re vulnerable to head and neck injuries, and in many SUVs they’re relatively low-tech and tighten in the event of a crash.
Harkey said newer seatbelts have sensors that can determine that a collision is imminent and pull the occupant into the correct seating position before a collision, slowing both the occupant and the vehicle. After impact, they loosen a bit to prevent the seat belt from rising up the pelvis and into the abdomen, causing serious internal injuries, he said.
Some automakers are already installing more sophisticated seat belts on their rear seats, Harkey said, and they can do so without major model updates. “The industry has been very responsive to the tests we’ve rolled out,” he said. “We hope they will in this case, and we hope they will do it as soon as possible.”
The institute used a crash dummy representing a small woman or a 12-year-old child to test for injuries to rear-seat passengers, and Harkey said the dummy did a good job of demonstrating the risks to passengers of all sizes.
When the IIHS introduced the moderate overlap frontal crash test in 1995, most vehicles were rated as poor or marginal. Automakers responded with stronger structures and air bags to keep front-seat passengers safer, and all 15 small SUV models have received good reviews in the past.
In the initial moderate overlap test, the vehicle drove towards the aluminum barrier at 40 mph. Approximately 40 percent of the vehicle’s width hit the driver’s side barrier.
Harkey said some of the SUVs tested had more sophisticated rear seat belts, but had to be timed to work better in the milliseconds before and after a crash. “Now they have to go back and figure out did they fire at the right time?” he said.
Small SUVs are the most popular new vehicle in the U.S. so far this year, with compact and subcompact SUVs combined accounting for 23.4 percent of all new vehicle sales, according to Edmunds.com.