Best Cars to Crash In
Great safety engineering can help fight the dangerous physics of auto accidents.
When it comes to automobiles, there are no happy accidents. Traffic-jam fender benders can wreck your day, and high-speed highway collisions can threaten your life. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, after maladies such as heart disease, cancer, stroke, Alzheimer's, diabetes and pneumonia, car crashes are the leading cause of death in the United States. In 2009, 33,808 people died in motor-vehicle collisions — almost twice the number of people killed in homicides. The good news is that traffic fatalities have been falling in the past two decades and are now at their lowest levels since 1949, despite a significant increase in the number of vehicle miles traveled.
That's because cars are safer than they've ever been. Two years ago, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety demonstrated the incredible advances in crash-protection technology over the past 50 years by crashing a 1959 Chevrolet Bel Air and a 2009 Chevrolet Malibu into each other in a 40-mph frontal collision. "Basically, the measurements from the crash dummy inside the Malibu indicate that a person could possibly walk away from that crash," says David Zuby, chief research officer at the IIHS, "whereas the dummy inside the '59 Bel Air is dead."
The main advances in automobile safety over the past 50 years break down into three main categories:
- Structural improvements, such as stronger cabin frames and engineered crumple zones.
- Passenger-restraint systems, such as seat belts and airbags.
- High-tech active safety systems, such as anti-lock brakes and stability control.
Obviously, some of these things, such as airbags and stability control, are features you can shop for — indeed, many of these systems are mandated or are about to be — but the structural stuff is less immediately apparent. "You can't tell just by looking at a car which one has a strong occupant compartment and which one has a weak occupant compartment," Zuby says. "Your best indication of crashworthiness is going to be crash-test ratings."
Zuby's organization is one of two major institutions that crash-tests cars. Both the IIHS and the Transportation Department's safety arm, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, routinely smash vehicles rigged with crash-test dummies and plenty of sensors to find out what happens to vehicles and people during a crash. Both organizations also spend lots of time analyzing data about real-world crashes to assess how they happen and who gets hurt.
It turns out that most crashes break down into four categories: frontal, side impact, rear and rollover. Obviously, many variables can affect the outcome of a crash: Were two cars involved or just one? Was the collision head-on or glancing? But when it comes to crash testing and statistics crunching, these four categories are the ones with the most data. Therefore, these are also the categories where we can draw some definitive conclusions about what car we'd rather be in, if we had to, for each type of crack-up.
By far the most lethal type of accident, the frontal collision includes impacts with trees, telephone poles, large animals, bridge abutments and, of course, other vehicles. The death toll for 2009 in frontal accidents was 12,239.
Most safety engineering in a vehicle is aimed at making frontal collisions more survivable. Crumple zones, for instance, are designed to help the vehicle absorb its own energy during an impact, while airbags and seat belts are designed to absorb the kinetic energy of the passengers.
In vehicle-to-vehicle frontal collisions — or any collision, for that matter — having a big, heavy vehicle also helps, although this is a subject of some controversy; the same mass that is protecting the larger vehicle's occupants is lowering the chance of survival in the smaller one. In other words, in a crash between a big truck and a compact car, the big truck is most likely to win.
Best vehicles for a frontal collision:
Compact car: Chevrolet Cruze, starting at $16,525; IIHS Top Safety Pick; NHTSA 5-star frontal crash rating; standard stability control.
Midsize car: Buick LaCrosse, starting at $27,130; IIHS Top Safety Pick; NHTSA 5-star frontal crash rating; standard stability control.
SUV: Volvo XC60, starting at $32,400; IIHS Top Safety Pick; NHTSA 5-star frontal crash rating; standard stability control; optional forward-collision warning system.
Minivan: Honda Odyssey, starting at $27,800; IIHS Top Safety Pick; NHTSA 5-star side-impact rating; standard stability control.
Truck: Toyota Tundra, starting at $23,935; IIHS Top Safety Pick; NHTSA 4-star frontal crash rating; standard stability control.
The side-impact collision can take two forms: a loss of control and the resulting slide into a tree or other obstacle, or the classic, broadside T-bone intersection crash. Although side collisions are responsible for only about half the deaths of frontal accidents, they are nonetheless particularly dangerous because there is often little warning of the impending impact, and because vehicles offer far less structural protection on the sides. "There isn't much of a side crush zone in vehicles," Zuby says. "That's why airbags are important."
Best vehicles for a side-impact collision:
Compact car: Chevrolet Cruze, starting at $16,525; IIHS Top Safety Pick; NHTSA 5-star side-impact rating; standard front and rear side-impact airbags, plus side-curtain airbags; standard stability control.
Larger car: Hyundai Sonata, starting at $19,395; IIHS Top Safety Pick; NHTSA 5-star side-impact rating; standard side-impact and side-curtain airbags; standard stability control.
SUV: Chevrolet Traverse, starting at $29,370; IIHS Top Safety Pick; NHTSA 5-star side-impact rating; standard side-impact and side-curtain airbags; standard stability control.
Minivan: Toyota Sienna, starting at $24,560; IIHS Top Safety Pick; NHTSA 5-star side-impact rating; standard driver and passenger side airbags, plus 3-row side-curtain airbags; standard stability control.
Truck: Ford F-150, starting at $22,790; IIHS Top Safety Pick; NHTSA 5-star side-impact rating; standard canopy and side-impact airbags; standard stability control.
Rear-end collisions are the most common of accidents, but the least fatal. According to IIHS stats, fewer than 1,000 people died due to rear-end impacts in 2009. When you examine the physics, it's hardly surprising; cars are typically moving forward or stopped when hit from behind, and therefore much of the kinetic energy from the accident ends up pushing the crashed vehicle further forward. Also, most rear-end collisions occur in slow or stopped traffic, so the damage to a vehicle is largely cosmetic. This is not to say that these crashes are inconsequential. Even low-speed collisions can do extensive damage to a car, resulting in hundreds if not thousands of dollars in repair costs. And higher-speed impacts that might not be life threatening can still cause debilitating neck injuries.
In an interesting show of priorities, NHTSA doesn't bother testing cars for rear impact, and the IIHS's high-speed rear-impact tests just use a vehicle's seats on a sled. The only major crash-test from behind on actual vehicles is the IIHS's low-speed impact test on bumpers, and these tests have been conducted on only a small selection of vehicles — none of which, it's worth noting, have ever scored above "acceptable." Nevertheless, since we lack the money to do this sort of testing ourselves, we'll present some suggestions based on the data that exist.
Best vehicles for a rear-end collision:
Compact car: Scion xB, starting at $16,000; IIHS Top Safety Pick; IIHS rear-crash protection seat rating: good; IIHS bumper rating: acceptable.
Larger car: Subaru Legacy, starting at $19,995; IIHS Top Safety Pick; IIHS rear-crash protection seat rating: good; IIHS bumper rating: acceptable.
SUV: Ford Flex, starting at $29,220; IIHS Top Safety Pick; IIHS rear-crash protection seat rating: good; IIHS bumper rating: no data available.
Minivan: Toyota Sienna, starting at $24,560; IIHS Top Safety Pick; IIHS rear-crash protection seat rating: good; IIHS bumper rating: no data available for current model.
Truck: Toyota Tundra, starting at $23,935; IIHS Top Safety Pick; IIHS rear-crash protection seat rating: good; IIHS bumper rating: no data available.
The rollover is the most frightening of accidents because once it starts, there's nothing you can do but hold on and pray. Rollovers can occur after a loss of control due to a slippery road or a blowout, or they can happen after another type of collision, resulting in double-whammy accidents that have greatly increased danger. According to Zuby, the most deadly possibility in a rollover is passenger ejection, usually because someone isn't wearing a seat belt.
Rollovers used to be a chronic problem with SUVs and other top-heavy vehicles, but the danger is starting to be reduced by the increased availability of stability control systems. Still, rollovers in tall vehicles are a risk. In NHTSA's new, more stringent tests for 2011, no SUVs, trucks or minivans have yet gotten a full 5-star rating. The best way to avoid a rollover is to drive a car with a low center of gravity, but not all of us can afford a Lamborghini Aventador, so here are some other options.
Best vehicles for a rollover:
Compact car: Audi A4, starting at $32,300; IIHS Top Safety Pick; NHTSA 5-star rollover rating; standard stability control.
Larger car: BMW 5-Series, starting at $45,050; IIHS Top Safety Pick; NHTSA 5-star rollover rating; standard stability control; optional lane-departure warning.
SUV: Volvo XC60, starting at $32,400; IIHS Top Safety Pick; NHTSA 4-star rollover rating; standard stability control; optional forward collision warning system.
Minivan: Honda Odyssey, starting at $27,800; IIHS Top Safety Pick; NHTSA 4-star rollover rating; standard stability control.
Truck: GMC Sierra 1500, starting at $21,235; NHTSA 4-star rollover rating; standard stability control.
Sam Foley is a Connecticut-based automotive journalist who has written for GQ, Forbes, USA Today, the New York Post and various other publications.
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I thought The Tundra had a weak, rusty frame?
These vehicles are crash tested when they are new. Tundra's aren't known for rust off the show room floor. They are known for developing that over time. A test like this would not be able to determine if a vehicle becomes less safe over time.
You also forgot to mention the number of American cars on the list (which by the way was almost split between American and Japanese).
The Toyota was cheese! The airbags had gone off, the front was crumpled (as designed), the anti-freeze and oil were gushing out on the road. The Impala still had 3 out of 4 headlights burning, and didn't appear to have leakage. The hood had popped up, but didn't look damaged. I would bet it was driveable. I don't know about injuries.
Staging an accident with an axe to grind is one thing, real life is another. An F150 won't get as good a crash rating as a smart car, but let me ram your smartie with my big F'er and let's see who walks off.
For the record, I'm not arguing whether the frames are still bad or not. I'm saying that the above tests are not proof that the problem is fixed.
Personally I don't really care. Toyota doesn't offer a truck that fits my needs (actually my wants). So they aren't on my shopping list.
By the way floks, I LOVE getting thumbs down, it's just sour grapes from sour American car owners!I'm not sure what floks are, but I wouldn't worry about the thumbs down. I don't think anyone here really cares except for the one or two people who use them. I certainly don't.
Even though new cars are supposed to be safer, i really don't feel that safe in a subcompact. The other thing is it seems like newer cars are like helmets, one crash good and your supposed to get a new one. I had a 97 Dodge Ram and had an accident and took out 2 Toyota's and all i got was a slightly bent bumper and a couple of bent radiator fins. About half the stuff i had on the front seat was still there too.
Ten years ago, one of my sons, the one who was not such a good driver, encountered a slick road while driving not very far from our house just as it began to rain. Because he was 18, from southern California, and naturally invincible ( as many teens think themselves to be), he acted as one might predict. The car left the pavement, flipped at least once, jumped a ditch, and wrapped itself around a good-sized tree. The car was quite literally destroyed. My son walked away from the wreck with a bruised ego. Boy, was I glad he was driving his new Mercedes.One can always buy another car, but children are irreplaceable.
I sat and watched the crash test video above....
I think that crash test would have turned out a hell of a lot differently if they had done it with my 1966 Chevelle Malibu 4 door. That thing had a larger thicker more solid frame, body, and bumper compared to the 59' small bumper Bel Air that probably had the straight six (only could make out one tail pipe on my screen) in it to make the new car look good in that one since the engine layout of the front wheel drive Malibu helped it. Also they only did a front left side crash test which is suspicious since I know unitized bodies can't take a rear hit and all their protection is up front. Next time they need to do the crash right using rwd vs rwd drive vehicles instead of giving the new vehicle an added piece of equipment called a transmission to help absorb the blow. Still I'd rather restore the crashed Bel Air since it's simple metal and no fancy pants plastic/crumple zone horse droppings to work with; there aren't tight spaces/ **** parts to work around like a new car either.