Copy-cat car bumpers prove dangerous in Ford tests

Consumer Reports News: November 29, 2010 05:32 PM

Knock-off replacement car bumper parts can cause air bags to deploy in low-speed crashes—when they shouldn't—as new testing by Ford shows. The company says that needless air bag deployment can more than double the repair costs of a vehicle after a minor fender bender, the most common type of crash.

Plus, the Ford test results provide new evidence that non-manufacturer bumper parts can throw off the necessary split-second timing of air-bag deployment in higher-speed crashes, when the safety devices are most critical for passenger safety.

Continuing their investigation into the impact of using aftermarket components, Ford engineers mounted replacement 2005-2009 bumper beams, absorbers, and isolators on two Ford Mustangs. One bumper set was made up of original equipment manufacturer (OEM) parts and a second set was made up of similar, commonly used non-OEM parts. The Mustangs were then crashed into a flat barrier at 5 and 8 mph to simulate the kind of collisions that might occur in a parking lot. (The video above is from a previous post "Knock-off bumper part "explodes" in crash test.") The 5 mph crash involving original-equipment bumpers cost $1,224 to repair, by Ford's estimate. But the non-OEM bumpers caused more than twice the damage, $2,982, Ford said. That extra $1,758 repair represents the potential hidden cost of cheaper non-OEM bumpers. Insurers pocket the savings when they push substandard bumpers on their customers. In this case, the knock-off bumper beam cost $98 vs. $178 for the Ford part, an $80 savings for the insurance company—if there's no subsequent accident.

The aftermarket bumper parts resulted in $3,816 in damage vs. $3,441 for the Ford original bumper parts in the 8 mph crash. However, unnecessary deployment of the two front passenger air bags would raise the cost of the copy bumper repair to $5,394, Ford said. For most crashes, higher repair costs may be the biggest consequence of using cheaper non-OEM bumpers.

"In general, the safety concern becomes a much more serious issue in higher-speed crashes if you're disrupting the timing of the air bag deployment," says Wes Sherwood, a Ford spokesman. A possible consequence is that the bag deploys too soon or too late and is thus not properly in place to protect vehicle occupants with the precise millisecond timing necessary.

The tests, involving physical full-vehicle crashes of two Ford Mustangs, follow computer-simulated testing of aftermarket vs. original manufacturer bumper parts conducted earlier this year by Ford  and crash-sled testing of a front bumper reinforcement by MGA Research last summer. The issue has raised concerns about the safety and protective value of cheap replacement bumpers.

Ford doesn't plan to conduct any further testing and is instead reporting its findings to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. "It's not our job to test aftermarket parts to prove that they're bad, it's the aftermarket parts makers' job to run tests to prove that their parts are good," says Paul Massie, Ford's powertrain and collision product marketing market manager.

As the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) stated in a November report (pdf), consumers should be cautious about the use of aftermarket structural parts, as quality may vary, but some replacement components can be reasonable substitutes for factory parts.

Testing and certification by the Certified Automotive Parts Association (CAPA) is a good first step toward standards, but participation in the CAPA program by copy-cat parts makers is voluntary; only federally mandated standards and testing will ensure the quality and safety of aftermarket parts.

—Jeff Blyskal

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