Flimsy bumpers in low-speed crashes can result in costly repairs

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

A car crash at 3 miles per hour is rarely fatal, unless the driver dies of a heart attack when he or she sees the repair bill.

Such a risk seems to be a growing issue, particularly for owners of Mercedes C class cars, Infiniti G35s and Lexus IS, among others.

A series of crash tests by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety this year has shown just how badly new cars are performing in what should be minor fender benders.

Bumpers cannot handle 3 to 6 mph collisions without taking out grills, hoods, fenders and other associated structures, said Joe Nolan, senior vice president at the safety group.

So what? Consider this: Most of your car insurance bill covers your risk of a low-speed accident typical of the institute crash tests. The major cost pushing up rates is not theft, fraud, ambulance-chasing attorneys or insurance industry profits, but simply that auto manufacturers are building cars with all the resilience of an eggshell.

The institute’s tests are conducted at essentially walking speed, Nolan said. If the human body were built like a car, you couldn’t walk into a wall without ending up in intensive care.

The institute’s tests of luxury vehicles demonstrate the problem: When a 2007 Mercedes C class sedan hit a fixed barrier head-on at 6 mph, it caused $5,486 of damage. The 2007 Infiniti G35 came in second worst at $5,223. The Lexus IS sustained damage of $4,695. In tests at 3 mph that aimed the impact at the front corner of the car, the G35 sustained $3,544 in damage, while the Lincoln MKZ performed best with only $669 of damage.

Auto manufacturers haven’t disputed the test results, but they say they are designed to measure insurance industry loses, not safety. As far as luxury vehicles incurring high damage, “It is to be expected,” said Lexus spokesman Greg Thome. He notes that the Lexus IS has costly headlight systems and options such as parking assist electronic sensors.

Another series of low-speed tests of mid-size sedans proved a bit less shocking. Still, a Volkswagen Passat sustained damage of $4,594, a Pontiac G6 $4,588 and a Nissan Maxima $4,535. The best performing mid-size car on the front bumper test was a Mitsubishi Gallant with $929 of damage.

The winner was a 1981 Ford Escort, a sturdy little car that is no longer made. When the institute tested an old model it still had around, the Escort came out of two of the crash tests with zero damage and a fraction of the damage that the best performing new cars had.

“It shows it is possible to build a better bumper,” Nolan said.

In fact, manufacturers are going in the opposite direction, making cars so vulnerable that minor accidents result in total losses.

Take the BMW Series 5 and 6 vehicles, which I wrote about last year. They have aluminum front ends that must be replaced if there is 1 millimeter of distortion in the frame.

Styling and fuel economy are dictating much of this vulnerability. A typical bumper nowadays consists of a vinyl cover over a foam core. Not every vehicle has a reinforced steel beam inside. Ten years ago, almost every car had such a reinforced beam, typically attached to hydraulic pistons that would absorb the energy of a small crash.

To make matters worse, auto stylists have designed bumpers that mold into the body work and protrude little, if at all, from the car. There’s no bumper where the bumper should be. They look terrific until a little knock wrinkles the hood.

Another big problem involves bumpers on vehicles at non-uniform heights. Car bumpers often slide under sport utility vehicle or truck bumpers.

Here’s the result: If you add up all the property damage from car collisions annually and divide that by the number of licensed drivers, it averages out to $348 per driver, Nolan said.

Would consumers buy cars that could survive low-speed crashes if they knew their insurance costs would drop significantly? Perhaps. But insurance companies base their rates on experience, meaning they would not discount a car with robust bumpers until the idea was proven on the road. The initial wave of consumers would never have any incentive to take the plunge.

Federal standards on bumpers offer little pocketbook protection. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s tough standards were watered down in the 1980s. Now, the standard requires essentially that bumpers protect the headlights and taillights in a 2.5 mph crash so that the driver can safely get home at night. It does not require protection of body parts.

Is there any recourse, short of bolting a wood beam to the front of your car? The only thing I can suggest is to drive carefully and check the want ads for a 1981 Ford Escort.