October 12, 2007

Mid size SUVs improve frontal crash protection, but some rated marginal in side crash tests

Arlington, Virginia – In recent crash tests conducted by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, six mid-size SUVs showed improved frontal crash protection, but two of the six were rated ‘Marginal’ in side impact crash tests.

The vehicles tested were the Ford Explorer, Jeep Grand Cherokee, Chevrolet Trailblazer, Nissan Pathfinder, Nissan Xterra, and Toyota 4Runner.

Five of the six SUVs earned the top rating of ‘Good’ in the Institute’s 40-mph frontal offset crash test. Four of the SUVs improved compared with their predecessor designs: the 1997-04 model Pathfinder, 1999-04 Grand Cherokee, and 2002-04 TrailBlazer were rated ‘Marginal’ for frontal crash protection. The 2000-04 Xterra was rated ‘Acceptable’. All four of the new versions improved to ‘Good’ except the TrailBlazer, which improved to ‘Acceptable’.

However, performance varied considerably in the side crash test that replicates a 31-mph crash in which the striking vehicle is another SUV or pickup. Two Nissan SUVs, the Pathfinder and Xterra, were rated ‘Good’ for protection in side impacts, but only when equipped with optional side airbags. Without the option, these SUVs earn ‘Marginal’ ratings. The Toyota 4Runner equipped with standard side airbags was rated ‘Good’, the Ford Explorer with standard side airbags earned an ‘Acceptable’ rating, and the Jeep Grand Cherokee and Chevrolet TrailBlazer, both with standard side airbags, were ‘Marginal’.

“The performance of some of these models in the side test was surprising,” said Institute senior vice president, David Zuby. “SUVs should have an advantage in side crashes because the driver and passengers ride higher up than in cars. People often think they’re safer in one of these vehicles, but many cars hold up better than some of these mid size SUVs in this test.”

The Grand Cherokee and TrailBlazer are equipped with standard curtain-style side airbags designed to protect the heads of occupants in front and rear seats. But unlike most cars with side airbags, these two SUVs don’t have additional sets of airbags to protect front-seat occupants’ chests and abdomens.

“Nearly every car with side airbags has both head and torso airbags, but the Grand Cherokee and TrailBlazer have head protection only,” Zuby pointed out. “Head protection is rated good in both vehicles, but the lack of chest protection and weak side structures that allowed a lot of intrusion contributed to high forces on the driver dummies’ chests and abdomens.”

The side structures of the 4Runner, Pathfinder, and Xterra performed better, allowing less intrusion into the occupant compartment. The standard side airbags in the 4Runner and the optional ones in the Pathfinder and Xterra include torso as well as head protection. Torso and head curtain airbags also are standard in the Explorer. While head protection was good in the Explorer, intrusion into the occupant compartment contributed to the possibility that someone in a real-world crash of similar severity would sustain a broken pelvis.

Standard side airbags are becoming more common across the vehicle fleet, but they’re standard in more cars than in SUVs. Among 2007 models, 71 percent of the cars have standard side airbags that protect both the head and chest while such protection is standard in only 48 percent of SUVs.

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