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Latest IIHS Crash Test Ratings Have A Few Surprises

The IIHS has made it tougher for vehicles to earn a top safety award in 2023. Many perennial favorites did not make the cut this year.

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety added a side crash test to its standard testing protocols in 2003  The testing was intended to recreate what happens in the real world when two vehicles collide. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration performs crash tests, but the IIHS side impact test was different from the similar test performed by NHTSA. It used a taller barrier to reflect the real-world height of an SUV, which at that time weighed 3000 pounds.

IIHS also pioneered the use of specialized testing dummies — one similar in size and weight to a small woman, and the other similar to a 12 year old child. The battering ram used to conduct the IIHS side impact test was set to travel at 31 miles per hour into the side of a test vehicle.

Henry Ford II once complained that safety doesn’t sell, but consumers learned to shun cars with poor crash test ratings. As a result, automakers upped their game by adding side impact airbags, which have proven to be quite effective at protecting people in side impact situations. IIHS says, “The program has been so successful that the current side ratings no longer help consumers distinguish among vehicles or point the way toward further improvements.”

In 2003, only 20 percent of the first vehicles tested earned a “good” rating. Now 99 percent of tested vehicles do. The remaining 1 percent are rated acceptable. But there’s a problem. Cars, SUVs, and trucks have gotten considerably larger, taller, and heavier since 2003. As a result, 23 percent of deaths in passenger vehicles in 2018 were due to side impacts.

Last year, IIHS decided it was time to update it testing protocols to reflect the size and weight of vehicles currently sold in the United States. Its in-house researchers and engineers studied modern side impact crashes in order to develop a better test that correlated with what drivers and passengers are experiencing in actual driving conditions today.

Because SUVs have gotten heavier, the movable barrier that smashes into the side of vehicles being tested now weighs 4,200 pounds — the weight of an average SUV today. Studies of road crashes also showed more severe impacts than the IIHS tested for, so another change in the testing protocol is to increase the speed of the battering ram from 31 mph to 37 mph. IIHS engineers said the 6 mph increase injects 42 percent more energy into the crash. Adding 1,200 pounds to the barrier adds another 40 percent more energy on top of that.

Not everything in the crash testing protocols will change. The IIHS says studying its crash test dummies has shown there is a high correlation between the instrumented injuries suffered in the lab and the fatality risks in real life.

IIHS Toughens Pedestrian Detection Standards

Automatic emergency braking has been available on many cars for several years. Originally, it only detected other vehicles, but then manufacturers started adding pedestrian detection capability as well. In 2019, 3 out of 5 vehicle models included passenger detection, according to IIHS. By 2021, 9 out of 10 vehicle models come with pedestrian detection. IIHS says those systems work quite well and have led to major reductions in the number of collisions with pedestrians.

But those systems do not function nearly as well after dark as they do in the daytime. In fact, there is little evidence they have reduced collisions with pedestrians in the nighttime at all. Not surprisingly, 75% of incidents that involve vehicles and pedestrians happen at night, particularly in poorly lit areas. Many readers will recall the horrific encounter between an Uber self-driving car and a woman crossing the road at night. The so-called self driving car never “saw” the woman, who died shortly thereafter.

There are other weak points, too. While IIHS found that pedestrian automatic emergency braking works well on roads with speed limits of 35 mph or below, it doesn’t make much of a difference on roads with speeds above 50 mph. These systems also don’t make any real difference in collisions that happen when a car is turning.

The IIHS has now added nighttime pedestrian detection to its safety rating protocols both to inform consumers and also to encourage automakers to make improvements to these systems. Many automakers are also upgrading their AEB systems to check for pedestrians when turning corners. In preliminary tests, IIHS  found the 2021 Toyota C-HR and 2021 Ford Bronco Sport AEB passenger detection systems work well. Both of them use a combination of cameras and radar.

The Envelope, Please

The IIHS awards the cars it tests with either a Top Safety Pick rating or a Top Safety Pick+ designation. Now that the new testing protocols have been strengthened, many of the models that used to have the Plus rating have dropped down into the standard category and many of the cars that used to have the Top Safety Pick designation no longer qualify.

Last year, 101 models earned an IIHS safety award. This year, only 48 models qualified and just 28 earned a Top Safety Pick+ rating, according to Autoblog. To get the basic Top Safety Pick award, vehicles must now earn a “Good” rating in the standard battery of frontal offset crash tests. In the new side impact test with the heavier ram, vehicles must get a “Good” or an “Acceptable” rating. The vehicles must also have an “Advanced” or “Superior” rating for their systems that avoid collisions with pedestrians. Finally, headlights with “Acceptable” or “Good” ratings must be standard on all models, so models that had poor performing lights in one trim aren’t eligible anymore.

For Top Safety Pick+, the requirements are more rigorous. Only a “Good” rating is accepted for the side impact test, and vehicles also have to have “Advanced” or “Superior” pedestrian crash prevention ratings at night as well as during the day. Below is the complete list of 2023 IIHS safety award winners.

IIHS Top Safety Picks

Small cars

  • Honda Civic hatchback (except Type R performance variant)
  • Honda Civic sedan
  • Mazda 3 hatchback
  • Mazda 3 sedan
  • Toyota Corolla hatchback
  • Toyota Corolla sedan

Midsize cars

  • Hyundai Sonata (built after December 2022)
  • Subaru Legacy

Midsize luxury car

  • Lexus ES 350

Small SUVs

  • Mazda CX-30
  • Mazda CX-5
  • Mazda CX-50
  • Nissan Rogue
  • Subaru Forester
  • Toyota RAV4
  • Toyota RAV4 Prime
  • Toyota Venza

Midsize SUVs

  • Ford Explorer
  • Mazda CX-9

Midsize luxury SUV

  • Lincoln Nautilus

IIHS Top Safety Pick+

Small car

  • Acura Integra

Midsize cars

  • Subaru Outback
  • Toyota Camry (built after January 2023)

Large luxury car

  • Genesis G90

Small SUVs

  • Honda CR-V
  • Honda HR-V
  • Lexus UX
  • Subaru Solterra (built after October 2022)

Midsize SUVs

  • Hyundai Palisade
  • Kia Telluride
  • Nissan Pathfinder
  • Subaru Ascent
  • Toyota Highlander
  • Volkswagen ID.4

Midsize luxury SUVs

  • Acura MDX
  • Acura RDX
  • Infiniti QX60
  • Lexus NX
  • Lexus NX Plug-in Hybrid
  • Lexus RX
  • Tesla Model Y
  • Volvo XC90
  • Volvo XC90 Recharge


  • Honda Odyssey
  • Toyota Sienna

Large pickups

  • Rivian R1T crew cab
  • Toyota Tundra crew cab
  • Toyota Tundra extended cab

There are a lot of models that are not on either list. The Tesla Model 3 is conspicuous by its absence. The manufacturers of those cars will presumably be working overtime to make their offerings eligible for IIHS awards soon. Henry The Deuce was wrong. Safety does sell.

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Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. He is proud to be "woke" and doesn't really give a damn why the glass broke. He believes passionately in what Socrates said 3000 years ago: "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new."


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