Crash test results provide valuable insights into how a car will perform in a collision. They're a motivator for automakers to make ongoing improvements. But sometimes, the results defy expectations—even with popular models.

For instance, consumers might assume vehicles from a prestige brand would be top performers. But paying extra for an upscale model doesn’t automatically translate to greater occupant protection.

For instance, the 2015 Acura TLX earned an Acceptable score from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety in the challenging small overlap front crash test, measured by careening a car at 40 mph into a rigid barrier that strikes just the front corner. The test approximates what would be a glancing head-on impact of two cars each traveling at 40 mph—what would happen when a car slightly drifts over the double-yellow centerline on a rural road.

With recently redesigned cars, the presumption is that they will achieve a Good rating. Clearly, that is not always the case.

Dissatisfied with its test outcome for the 2015 model, Acura reinforced the front pillar structure. And yet, when the 2016 Acura TLX was tested, it scored worse—earning a Marginal rating.

This unusual scenario underscores the need to check ratings, rather than assume an Acura would perform well, or that the new model would be better than last year’s car.

For those looking at safety and value, it is hard to ignore that the Honda Accord gets Good marks across the board from IIHS. This is an interesting scenario, in that the TLX borrows quite a bit of its structure from the Accord. 

2016 Acura TLX during overlap front crash test by IIHS
2016 Acura TLX during small overlap front crash test by IIHS.
Photo: IIHS

Acura is not alone among the upscale/midsized sedans in having troubles with the small-offset test. The Audi A4 is rated Poor, with the BMW 3 Series and Volkswagen CC being rated Marginal.

Toyota has struggled with this test, as well. In 2013, the RAV4 earned a Poor score. At the same time, the Subaru Forester received top marks for front, side, rear, rollover, and small offset tests, proving that this wasn’t an inherent limitation of small SUVs. The RAV4 returned with updates to score a Good with 2015 models built after November 2014—a confusing situation for used-car shoppers who must look to build dates to ensure they are getting the protection they expect.

The same can be said for the Toyota Camry, a model that struggled to achieve top marks since its 2012 redesign. Out of the gate, the Camry scored a Poor for the small overlap test, admittedly the year the test was introduced, when other models struggled, as well. Updates for 2014 saw the score rise to Acceptable; Toyota advises that the score applies to 2014.5 models built after December 16, 2013. Improvements continued the following model year, pushing the score up to Good for 2015.

As the Camry and RAV4 struggled to earn IIHS accolades, each had its Consumer Reports recommendation suspended when their scores were Poor. We are pleased by the improvements, but expect that, again, used-car shoppers can be easily confused. Both models have excellent reputations for reliability, road test scores, and perhaps even safety, but their crash test protection has varied significantly.

But as you can see from these examples, tests do motivate positive change. However, as automakers watch costs, it is clear that some models are specifically engineered for the test, rather than in the spirit of the intended protection.

The IIHS exposed just such a scenario with the latest Ford F-150. Comparing cab variations, IIHS found that the popular SuperCrew had extra material to improve its small offset performance that was absent on the SuperCab truck. Where the F-150 extended cab came up short was in allowing compressed structure to intrude into the passenger cabin, earning a Poor structure rating.

IIHS test findings show that the toepan, parking brake, and brake pedal were pushed by 10-13 inches toward the driver, and the dashboard was jammed against the crash-test dummy’s legs. Further, the steering column was pushed back nearly eight inches, coming “dangerously close” to the dummy’s chest.

“Ford added structural elements to the crew cab’s front frame to earn a good small overlap rating and a Top Safety Pick award, but didn’t do the same for the extended cab,” said David Zuby, IIHS chief research officer. “In a small overlap front crash like this, there’s no question you’d rather be driving the crew cab than the extended cab.”

Bottom Line

Crash tests provide a valuable service for consumers. But to truly benefit, car shoppers must look deeper into the ratings rather than rely on marketing and hearsay.  

2013 Toyota RAV4 after a small overlap front crash test by IIHS
2013 Toyota RAV4 after a small overlap front crash test by IIHS.
Photo: IIHS