The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) is trying to nudge the auto industry to engineer vehicles that protect the driver and front passenger equally.

That might sound like a no-brainer. But automakers often design to a specific crash test, so over the years, the Arlington, Va.-based IIHS, known for its safety ratings, has toughened the requirements to earn its coveted Top Safety Pick and Top Safety Pick+ awards in order to motivate automakers to continuously improve their designs.

This time, IIHS is adding a 40-mph small overlap frontal crash test on the passenger side, whereby the vehicle strikes a five-foot-tall rigid barrier, simulating a car striking a tree or pole on the corner. IIHS been doing the same test on the driver’s side since 2012. Measuring the impact on the right side, 10 out of 13 of the midsize vehicles recently tested earned a Good rating. One was Acceptable, and two earned a Marginal score.  

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“The midsize cars we tested didn’t have any glaring structural deficiencies on the right side,” says IIHS Senior Research Engineer Becky Mueller. “Optimizing airbags and safety belts to provide better head protection for front-seat passengers appears to be the most urgent task now.”

The sedans evaluated in this group where 2017 models, with the exception of three 2018s: Subaru Legacy, Subaru Outback, and Toyota Camry.  

The cars that got Good scores in the latest IIHS tests were: Ford Fusion, Honda Accord, (the outgoing model, not the new one), Hyundai SonataLincoln MKZ, Mazda6, Nissan Altima, Nissan MaximaSubaru Legacy, Subaru Outback, and Toyota Camry.

The Volkswagen Jetta earned a mark of Acceptable.

The Chevrolet Malibu and VW Passat were rated as Marginal.

Since the Insurance Institute has been doing the challenging small overlap frontal crash test, manufacturers have strengthened the structure of the occupant compartment to better protect drivers. They’ve lengthened side-curtain airbags to gain added forward coverage and in some cases, they’ve extended bumpers.

The Institute says it was concerned that all of the progress made on the left side of the vehicle wouldn’t necessarily translate to the right side, since vehicles aren’t engineered to be symmetrical.

"As the area immediately surrounding the driver becomes safer and safer, it makes sense to apply what’s been learned from those tests and to begin to evaluate the safety of other occupants in the vehicle," says Jennifer Stockburger, director of operations at the Consumer Reports Auto Test Center.

2018 Subaru Outback during crash test
2018 Subaru Outback

IIHS signaled it was thinking about changing its ratings criteria last year, when it conducted preliminary tests on a set of small SUVs. All of the tested vehicles had Good drivers-side ratings. But of the nine vehicles tested on the passenger side, only two earned Good ratings. Four were Acceptable, two were Marginal, and one was Poor.

Between last year and this year, automakers have already begun to make design changes, said Mueller.

“Clearly, some manufacturers have been paying attention,” she said.

2017 Chevrolet Malibu after the small offset front crash test.
2017 Chevrolet Malibu