Midsize Sedans Take On the IIHS’ Updated Side Crash Test and…Ouch.

Only one sedan managed a 'Good' rating in the heavier, faster side impact test

(Images: Insurance Institute for Highway Safety)

All seven of the vehicles tested for tougher side impact standards previously scored well.

Modern cars are safer than ever before, by virtue of tougher and tougher standards set by groups like the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. Their Top Safety Pick and Top Safety Pick+ ratings can be a strong selling point, and their evaluations help give new car buyers some peace of mind in their purchase should the worst happen. That work never stops, though. While more cars score well in crash testing — with headlights being the major stumbling block for the relatively few cars that don’t manage a Top Safety Pick accolade — the IIHS is upping the ante with a faster, heavier test rig for side impact testing.

Some background: The evaluators developed this updated test after research showed the older version did not accurately reflect real-world side crashes. T-bone accidents still account for nearly a quarter of passenger vehicle fatalities. What’s more, a still-significant number of buyers are opting for midsize sedans like the Toyota Camry, Honda Accord and Nissan Altima, but they’re coming up against an increasing number of midsize and large SUVs.

In this new test, the barrier striking the side of each vehicle now weighs 4,200 pounds (instead of the old 3,300-pound barrier). That’s roughly the weight of a Ford Edge, and representative of the SUVs many families drive every day. The heavier barrier also strikes the vehicle at a higher 37 mph speed (instead of 31 mph), representing a significant increase in the amount of crash energy the impacted vehicle has to dissipate.

Here’s how seven midsize (per IIHS’ classification) cars managed in the latest test, with ratings from ‘Poor’ to ‘Marginal’, ‘Acceptable’ and ‘Good’:

This time around, only one midsize sedan in the test batch managed a ‘Good’ side crash rating.

Among the cars the IIHS tested, only the Subaru Outback emerged with a solid score. Across the entire range, though, the evaluations noted a higher risk of torso and pelvic injury. Beyond that, cars like the Honda Accord, Toyota Camry, Nissan Altima and Chevrolet Malibu had issues where the crash dummies’ heads slipped below the side curtain airbags and struck the window sill in the side impact crash, as marked by their ‘Marginal’ head protection ratings.

One reason for the Subaru’s relatively strong performance is its higher ride height. That allowed the barrier to strike the lower, stronger parts of the doors, further mitigating the chance for serious injury, even while simulating a heavier vehicle traveling at faster speed. “With vehicles that sit lower to the ground, the striking barrier hits higher on the door panel,” said IIHS president David Harkey. “That potentially puts sedans and [lower riding] wagons at a disadvantage in this evaluation but reflects what happens in a real-world crash when these vehicles are struck by a higher-riding pickup or SUV.”

These tests do not impact the 2022 model year’s Top Safety Pick or Top-Safety Pick+ ratings. However, the IIHS will require an ‘Acceptable’ or ‘Good’ rating to hit Top Safety Pick for 2023. For the higher-tier Top Safety Pick+, midsize sedans and wagons will have to achieve a ‘Good’ rating in this side impact evaluation, in addition to all other crash tests, headlight ratings and frontal crash prevention measures.

Almost all cars tested here, with the exception of the Hyundai Sonata, Volkswagen Jetta and Chevrolet Malibu, scored a Top Safety Pick+ award for the 2022 model year. The Hyundai Sonata is still a Top Safety Pick (falling short on ‘Good’ headlights across the entire range), while the Jetta and Malibu do not currently have TSP ratings.