Some of the country’s most popular midsize sport utility vehicles flunked a recent series of crash tests, leading the influential magazine Consumer Reports to pull its coveted "recommended" rating for three of the vehicles.
The independant Insurance Institute for Highway Safety announced Tuesday that the Kia Sorrento, Honda Pilot and Mazda CX-9 all earned a "poor" overall rating in the front overlap crash test.
Six others passed the test. The Chevrolet Equinox and GMC Terrain twins scored "good" ratings from the IIHS. The Toyota Highlander was rated "acceptable." The Jeep Grand Cherokee, Toyota 4Runner and Ford Explorer were deemed "marginal." All of the SUVs tested were from the 2014 model year.
“SUVs have gotten much safer over the past few generations, but some are better than others at providing comprehensive front crash protection,” David Zuby, IIHS executive vice president, said in a statement. “When it comes to midsize SUVs, General Motors is showing the way forward.”
The crash results led the IIHS to give its Top Safety Pick Plus designation to the Toyota, Chevy, and GMC SUVs.
But shortly after the IIHS findings were revealed, Consumer Reports announced that it was no longer recommending the Sorento, CX-9 or Pilot, saying they were “behind models that are state-of-the-art in crash protection.”
“That is not to say these vehicles are any less safe than they were previously,” the magazine wrote. “Just that the latest data shows that they don’t rival the best competition by this measure.”
All three of the failing models are relatively old in their life cycles and will likely be replaced by next-generation vehicles in the next year or so. Thus, it’s likely that Mazda, Kia and Honda are currently focusing their engineering dollars on new models rather than retrofitting the existing SUVs, said Dave Sullivan, an analyst at AutoPacific Inc.
Of the three, the poor IIHS results and the loss of the Consumer Reports recommendation are a bigger blow to Kia than Honda or Mazda.
“For a brand that’s still in the back of people's minds, and given the quality concerns people had a decade ago with Kia, these types of things never help to polish their image,” Sullivan said.
The crash test results for the Toyota Highlander -- and Consumer Reports’ positive impressions of the SUV in its own testing -- led the magazine to recommend the all-new 2014 model. Because the magazine wasn’t impressed with the Chevy and GMC twins, it declined to recommend those models, despite the IIHS results.
The IIHS began putting all vehicles through the new front overlap crash test in 2012 after research showed that about a quarter of all serious injuries in frontal collisions came from this type of crash. This test replicates what happens to a vehicle when its front corner hits a fixed object, like a telephone pole or a tree. The vehicles are given scores of good, acceptable, marginal or poor.
For 2014, the IIHS upped the ante for automakers to earn its recommendations. To be a Top Safety Pick, a vehicle needs to rate either good or acceptable in the small overlap crash tests, and good in four other tests. Above that, only models with optional front crash prevention systems are eligible for the Top Safety Pick Plus award.
Safety is often one of the top three factors in shaping what consumers drive home from the dealership. As a result, automakers have been eager to garner top safety ratings by the IIHS and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, and then tout the awards in their advertising.
GM’s results couldn’t have come at a better time for the beleaguered brand. The automaker is facing sharp criticism from lawmakers, safety advocates and consumers for its delayed recall of more than 2.6 million vehicles whose defective ignition switches are tied to at least 13 deaths. Though GM knew about the switches as early as 2001, the automaker didn’t begin recalling them until February of this year.
“Having the only two midsize SUVs that earned the Top Safety Pick Plus designation speaks to GM’s continued focus on improving our vehicles and keeping our customers safe,” Gay Kent, general director of General Motors vehicle safety and crashworthiness, said in a statement. “We are very pleased that the IIHS has recognized the safety of both the Chevrolet Equinox and GMC Terrain with this prestigious rating.”
Honda was less happy. In addition to earning a “poor” overall score, its Pilot scored the worst of all the nine SUVs tested. This was a surprising turnaround given that the current Accord and Civic sedans and Odyssey minivan have each won Top Safety Pick Plus designations.
Yet the Pilot’s driver space was “seriously compromised” by the overlap crash test, the IIHS said. Injuries to to the driver’s left hip, knee and both lower legs would be possible, the tests found.
Honda took issue with the IIHS findings, going so far as to issue a statement ahead of the agency’s announcement. The automaker pointed out that the 2013 Honda Pilot -- which shares an identical structure to the 2014 model in this recent test -- was an IIHS Top Safety Pick in 2013.
Regardless, the Pilot shouldn’t be considered an unsafe vehicle, Sullivan said.
“Just because something doesn’t get a Top Safety Pick Plus doesn’t mean we’re talking about Ford Pintos,” the analyst said.