Tesla Model S aces government crash test

The American automaker adds 'safest car' to its growing roster of accolades

Published: August 21, 2013 10:30 AM
The Tesla Model S during a NHTSA crash test.

Tesla Motors has shaken the automotive industry to its very frame, showing that a new company can truly challenge the status quo. The American car company’s latest accomplishment is to achieve 5-star safety ratings in the front, side, and side pole crash tests and rollover evaluation conducted by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. And this isn’t just a rounded-up score, as is common, but the Model S genuinely aced every main test and subtest. (Learn more about car safety.)

In 2011, NHTSA made its test more stringent, as most vehicles were coming through the program with 5-star ratings. That is not the case now. And yet, Tesla Motors says that based on the overall Vehicle Safety Score provided to manufacturers, the Model S achieved a new combined record of 5.4 stars. (Learn more about government and insurance industry tests in "Crash Test 101.")

Just as the Model S had distinct advantages in our road test program by being an electric car (noise, fuel economy, etc.), the car’s design gives it an edge in crash tests, as well. Up front, there is no engine to manage in a crash, just crumple space. Likewise, at the rear, there is no fuel tank. The electric motor is only about a foot in diameter, and the battery pack is centrally located.

More impressive, the Model S achieved a "Good" rating for the side pole test, which simulates the car striking a narrow object like a utility pole or tree. This 20-mph test concentrates crash forces on a small area, and it can humble many cars. Tesla cites the nested designed of the aluminum side rails as enabling the car to preserve 63.5 percent of the driver space.

It is no surprise that the Model s did well in the rollover test, aided by a wide stance and low center of gravity.

Tesla Motors points out that its "lithium-ion battery did not catch fire at any time before, during, or after the NHTSA testing"—an obvious dig against issues that had arisen with competing electrified models. Further, the company is unaware of any occupant fatalities with it original Roadster or the Model S.

Separately, Tesla Motors had a roof crush test performed by an independent facility, whose machine failed before the roof was compressed. Tesla claims the proven protection is equivalent to stacking four Model S vehicles on top of the test car.

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety has not tested the Model S, and it reports that it has not current plans to do so.

An outstanding car by any measure, the Model S is the highest-scoring car in our ratings, earning 99 out of 100 points overall. And the government tests show it to be the safest vehicle on the market by their measures. That only leaves reliability as an open question . . . one we hope to answer this fall, when our latest data is published.

Read our complete Tesla Model S road test.

Jeff Bartlett

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