Midsized Sedans Fare Poorly in New Side Impact Crash Test

A higher-speed test challenges low-slung vehicles more than SUVs

cSubaru Outback
The Subaru Outback was the only midsized car to receive the highest mark in this tough, new test.
Photo: IIHS

As side impact crash tests get tougher, only 3 out of 7 midsized cars earned a Good or Acceptable rating in the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety’s (IIHS) latest round of tests.

The Subaru Outback was the only model to receive the highest mark, a Good rating, while the Toyota Camry, Nissan Altima, and Chevrolet Malibu received Poor ratings.

All seven earned Good ratings in the original side impact test. But the IIHS is evolving its test program and pressuring the auto industry to make continued improvements. The new results show the effects of a new side impact protocol that’s designed to replicate real-world situations involving impacts from SUVs. 

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The IIHS previously applied this protocol, which uses a heavier sled moving at a higher speed, to small and midsized SUVs. They fared much better.

Only two of 20 small SUVs earned the lowest score of Poor. And one, the Honda HR-V, has already been replaced by an all-new model. None of the 18 midsized SUVs tested earned a Poor.

"As you know, this is an updated test condition and previously the Malibu did achieve a ‘good’ rating under the previous testing protocol, says Kevin Kelly, senior director, Chevrolet communications. "In terms of potential changes to the vehicle, we don’t comment on potential future product or updates." The other automakers didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

Automakers have known since 2018 that the safety organization’s standard side impact test was due to change. But this is still a bit of a pop quiz because many models put through the test thus far were developed too recently to be engineered to meet these standards.

“The original side crash test led to big improvements in side crash protection,” said Joe Young, a spokesman for the IIHS. “We expect to see continued improvements with the rollout of this new test. These new ratings certainly reflect the challenge posed by the new test configuration, but, as the Subaru Outback demonstrates, good side protection is achievable for this vehicle class.”

This underscores a key benefit to the IIHS’ increasingly stringent tests: They motivate the industry to make improvements. 

These cars didn’t perform as well as the previous groups of SUVs. According to the IIHS, their lower ride height could be a key factor. 

“With vehicles that sit lower to the ground, the striking barrier hits higher on the door panel,” says David Harkey, president of the IIHS. “That potentially puts sedans and wagons at a disadvantage in this evaluation but reflects what happens in a real-world crash when these vehicles are struck by a higher-riding pickup or SUV.”

The IIHS was motivated to update this test by research that showed that nearly a quarter of occupant fatalities were in crashes that were more severe than the standard test. 

The previous version of the side impact test used a 3,300-pound sled traveling at 31 mph. This new protocol uses a 4,200-pound sled with a mass closer to current midsized SUVs moving at 37 mph, so the crash forces are much more extreme. The IIHS says the new simulated side impact crash generates 82 percent more energy than the former test.

For now, the results don’t have an impact on eligibility for IIHS Top Safety Pick awards. But they will in 2023.

A Good or Acceptable rating in this test—in addition to Good ratings for other frontal, roof crush, and head restraint tests—will be required for the basic Top Safety Pick designation, and a Good will be needed to earn the coveted Top Safety Pick+ accolade.

Until then, a vehicle that performed well in prior side impact crash tests may still retain the IIHS Top Safety Pick designation, but consumers can use this new information to inform their purchasing decisions. 

This means that without improvements, the Honda Accord, Nissan Altima, and Toyota Camry would lose their TSP+ status. 

“If you own or are considering one of the models that didn’t perform as well, that doesn’t mean that particular vehicle is any less safe today than it was yesterday,” says Jennifer Stockburger, director of operations at CR Auto Test Center. “It simply means that we all have new information about models that may provide additional protection in these types of side impact crashes and that future models will likely incorporate improvements that make them even better. We will all benefit from those improvements, and we look to organizations like IIHS to continue to drive them.” 

IIHS ratings, from best to worst, are as follows: Good, Acceptable, Marginal, and Poor. Results of the new IIHS side impact testing for the midsized cars are shown below, ranked by performance, factoring results from measurements, such as driver injury and rear passenger risks.

IIHS  new side-impact crash test dummy in Chevrolet Malibu
Smeared greasepaint low on the side curtain airbag shows that the rear passenger dummy's head moved downward, past the side curtain airbag, and contacted the rear window sill.

Photo: IIHS Photo: IIHS

Ratings in IIHS’ New Side Impact Test for Midsized Cars

Good: Subaru Outback
Acceptable: Hyundai Sonata, Volkswagen Jetta
Marginal: Honda Accord
Poor: Toyota Camry, Nissan Altima, Chevrolet Malibu

IIHS  new side-impact crash test results Chevrolet Malibu
A Chevrolet Malibu after a crash, with doors removed, showing the side airbags and damage to the occupant compartment.

Photo: IIHS Photo: IIHS


Jeff S. Bartlett

A New England native, I have piloted a wide variety of vehicles, from a Segway to an aircraft carrier. All told, I have driven thousands of vehicles—many on race tracks across the globe. Today, that experience and passion are harnessed at the CR Auto Test Center to empower consumers. And if some tires must be sacrificed in the pursuit of truth, so be it. Follow me on Twitter (@JeffSBartlett).