Hoping to further reduce the incidence of injuries suffered by a driver in the case of a severe frontal impact, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety has expanded its current vehicle evaluation regimen by adding a new and more demanding "small overlap" front offset crash test.

First performed in 1995, the organization's present "moderate overlap" test measures what happens when a vehicle strikes a 5-foot deformable barrier at 40 mph using a 40-percent overlap meant to simulate a typical crash with a pole or a tree. This new "small offset" variation cuts that figure to just 25 percent. Since the main crush structure in most vehicles normally spans about 50 percent of the center frontal area, that change allows a far greater amount of impact energy to bypass the primary line of defense. Instead, it gets transferred from components like the tire and suspension elements directly into the passenger compartment - almost always with far more serious implications for the driver. 

Institute President Adrian Lund indicated that the decision to implement this new and more stringent test was largely a sign of the times and the state of current automotive engineering. "Nearly every new car performs well in other frontal crash tests conducted by the Institute and the federal government, but we still see more than 10,000 deaths in frontal crashes each year. Small overlap crashes are a major source of these fatalities. This new test program is based on years of analyzing real-world frontal crashes and then replicating them in our crash test facility to determine how people are being seriously injured and how cars can be designed to protect them better. We think this is the next step in improving frontal crash protection."

The first 13 vehicles evaluated by the IIHS were all 2012 model-year luxury cars -- nine of which also had been awarded the organization's "Top Safety Pick" honor. Of that group, only the Acura TL and the Volvo S60 earned
"Good" marks in its new and more demanding small-offset test. Best among the others were the Infiniti G that got an "Acceptable" ranking despite not being a TSP recipient and the Acura TSX, Acura TSX Sport Wagon, BMW 3 Series, Lincoln MKZ, Mercedes-Benz C-Class and Volkswagen CC --  all Top Safety Picks but earning  "Marginal" ratings in this initial small-overlap shootout. Faring worst in the test were the Lexus ES350 and Lexus IS250/350, both of which received a "Poor" mark.

"We won't have evaluated many vehicles in the small-overlap test in time for the 2013 award," Lund noted. "Models meeting the current award criteria still offer outstanding protection in most crashes, and they will continue to earn Top Safety Pick in 2013. However, those vehicles that also do well in the new test will get to claim a higher award level that will be announced later this year."

For a closer look at the IIHS test procedures and the results of this initial small-offset front crash evaluation, click here.

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