The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety’s first-ever study on headlight performance reveals that most systems are not up to snuff. Of 31 midsize vehicles evaluated, only one, the Toyota Prius v, received a “Good” rating. And even that only when it was equipped with full LED headlamps and High Beam Assist -- part of an $8,400 optional Advanced Technology Package on the top trim grade. The IIHS said the best lighting systems on 11 of the models it tested earned Acceptable marks, nine were deemed Marginal and 10 vehicles got Poor ratings regardless of their headlight systems.

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To determine the efficacy of the lighting, testers drove each vehicle after dark on a special test track at the IIHS Vehicle Research Center and used a proprietary device to measure illumination from both the low and high beams as the car was traveling straight and when negotiating sharp and gradual left and right curves. The IIHS regimen also checked whether the lights created excessive glare for oncoming vehicles. It noted that the vehicles were tested as received from dealers with the factory adjustments in place.

It’s the lights, not your eyes

"If you're having trouble seeing behind the wheel at night, it could very well be your headlights and not your eyes that are to blame," said David Zuby, IIHS executive vice president and chief research officer. Zuby also noted that current government standards based on laboratory tests for headlights also allow for “huge variation” in the amount of real illumination they provide in actual driving situations and pointed out that most people also don’t use their high beams as much as they should. 

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The 31 vehicles IIHS evaluated in the study were available with 82 different possible lighting combinations, all of which were tested and rated. Zuby said the most advanced technology, including LED lamps with curve-adaptive and high-beam assist enhancements didn’t always produce the best real-world results, pointing out the standard halogen lights in the Honda Accord actually outperformed the optional LED/high-beam assist units.

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Midsize models that received Acceptable headlamp ratings from the IIHS included the Audi A3, Honda Accord Sedan, Infiniti Q50 Lexus ES, Lexis IS, Mazda6, Nissan Maxima, Subaru Outback (built after November), Volkswagen CC, Volkswagen Jetta and Volvo S60. Those earning Marginal marks were the Acura TLX, Audi A4, BWM 2 Series, BMW 3 Series, Chrysler 200, Ford Fusion, Lincoln MKZ, Subaru Legacy and Toyota Camry. Vehicles whose best-possible lighting systems scoring Poor rankings included the Buick Verano, Cadillac ATS, Chevrolet Malibu and fleet-only Malibu Limited, Hyundai Sonata, Kia Optima Mercedes-Benz C-Class, Mercedes-Benz CLA, Nissan Altima and Volkswagen Passat.

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