Results of a new crash test that focused on luxury cars are raising worries that most vehicles may not be able to provide protection from serious injuries in a common accident.
Such fancy nameplates as BMW, Mercedes and Lexus all earned "poor" ratings in a test that simulated what happens when the front corner of a sedan hits another vehicle or an object such as a tree or pole, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.
Just three of 11 luxury cars from the 2012 model year passed the new crash test, which looked at front-corner impacts, which are not well protected by vehicles' crush-zone structures.
If luxury vehicles are failing at a high rate, it is likely that most cars won't do well, said David Champion, who directs Consumer Reports' auto testing program.
"This is something that has not been on the top of most manufacturers' lists of things they have to do," Champion said. "It will take five to 10 years before every manufacturer works out how to do well in this test."
Design changes based on the insurance group data would create safer vehicles and save lives, he said.
In the insurance group's test, 25% of a car's front end on the driver's side is rammed into a 5-foot-high rigid barrier at 40 mph. The insurance institute plans to incorporate the same kind of crash in tests of other vehicles.
"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," said Adrian Lund, the institute's president. "Small overlap crashes," which include the type of accident examined by the new test, "are a major source of these fatalities."
The Acura TL and Volvo S60 earned "good" ratings, while the Infiniti G was rated "acceptable." The Acura TSX, BMW 3 Series, Lincoln MKZ and Volkswagen CC all received "marginal" ratings. The Audi A4, Lexus ES 350, Lexus IS 250/350 and Mercedes-Benz C-Class were rated "poor."
The crash forces in such an accident are transmitted to the front wheel, suspension system and firewall, according to the trade group. In many instances, the front wheel pushes into the cabin, causing serious leg and foot injuries.
The auto industry could provide more effective protection by designing the passenger safety cage to resist front-corner impacts. Crush-zone structures already built into modern vehicles are better at protecting occupants from direct hits from the front.
"The problem of small overlap crashes hasn't been addressed. We hope our new rating program will change that," Lund said. "These are severe crashes."