Explorer, Jeep Liberty Bumpers Found Wanting in Crash Tests


Detroit is still having trouble building a better bumper, according to new crash testing conducted by the insurance industry.

Ford Motor Co.'s redesigned Explorer and DaimlerChrysler’s key new Jeep Liberty scored poorly in bumper testing conducted by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. That’s bad news for two auto makers trying to persuade customers in a weak economy that their sport-utility vehicles are better values than the competition.

The low-speed crash tests are designed to check the ability of a vehicle’s bumpers to protect it from frame and body damage and are not intended to rate passenger safety.

But poor scores made public Thursday loom as a pocketbook issue for consumers, because the tests can show a likelihood that real-world crash repair costs will result in increases in insurance premiums for certain vehicles. And they are a black eye no manufacturer can afford in such a highly competitive market.


The Arlington, Va.-based insurance institute said Ford’s 2002 Explorer--a replacement for troubled earlier models and touted by the auto maker as an example of state-of-the-art automotive engineering--has bumpers that do little to prevent extensive body damage in a low-speed crash. In one test, the Explorer sustained $2,334 in damage to the bumper and other front-end parts, including the right fender and headlamp, when the front bumper bent after hitting an angled steel barrier at 5 mph.

Jeep’s 2002 Liberty, a key model that replaces the aged Cherokee, also has poorly performing bumpers, the research institute found.

“By and large, the bumpers in these classes of vehicles are poorly designed,” Adrian Lund, the institute’s chief operating officer, said of SUVs and pickup trucks in general.

The Explorer and Liberty showings were disheartening, “because these are new vehicles, and they had every opportunity to design the bumpers to do a better job,” he said, adding, “Making a strong bumper isn’t a great engineering feat.”


A chief competitor, the new Chevrolet TrailBlazer from General Motors Corp., has the best bumpers in the four-vehicle test group when it comes to minimizing body damage, the group said. In designing its replacement for the poorly testing Blazer, GM was able to cut crash test damages by more than half and produce only the third mid-size SUV, after the far-more expensive X5 from BMW and the Acura MDX from Honda Motor Co., to receive the institute’s top bumper rating of “acceptable.”

The bumpers on the only pickup truck in the test group, the 2002 Dodge Ram 1500, were rated “marginal,” but that is a passing grade and the highest rating ever awarded a pickup, Lund said.

The institute crashes vehicles into flat and angled barriers in front and rear collisions at 5 mph and totals the cost of repairing cumulative damage from all four crashes to arrive at its ratings. Thursday’s results were from just one of several groups of bumper tests the institute conducts each year.

It lists its ratings online at


Stressing that the insurance group’s test is not a safety test, Ford and DaimlerChrysler said they design their vehicles, including bumpers, to meet or exceed federal safety standards.

But Lund said Ford used “minimal energy-absorbing material” in the Explorer bumper and installed a steel cross-member “that just is not strong enough.” Damage to the Explorer totaled $5,432 in the four 5-mph crash tests.

The Jeep fared worst in the simple test of backing into a flat barrier, a test that replicates striking another vehicle or a parking barrier or loading dock while backing up at the vehicular equivalent of a slow jog.

Because Jeep mounts the Liberty’s spare tire on the outside of the tailgate, the bumper never contacted the barrier, Lund said. Instead, the tire was pushed into the tailgate, causing extensive sheet-metal damage. Additionally, the rear window shattered--a $500 repair--and the rear windshield washer motor was damaged. The total repair bill for that one crash was $1,719; the total for all four was $5,667.