IIHS Announces 2011 Top Safety Picks

By Chris Haak

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, a nonprofit funded by member insurance companies, has released its top safety picks for 2011, and there are a large number of very safe vehicles on the road for the 2011 model year.  According to the IIHS, there were 66 winners (40 cars, 25 trucks/SUVs, and one minivan) for 2011, which is a significant spike from the 2010 model year, when tougher roof-strength standards cut the list to just 27 vehicles qualified for the award.  During the course of the 2010 model year, that number eventually grew to 58 vehicles as new models were introduced and existing models were enhanced.  For 2011, two of the 2010 winners dropped off the list and 10 new models were added.  The IIHS expects that throughout the course of the model year, additional vehicles will be classified as top picks as well.

The IIHS crash tests are far more rigorous than the NHTSA’s tests, and come to play with a different perspective than the government does.  The IIHS, as it’s funded by the insurance industry, wishes to minimize claims payments from accidents.  The means to get to that lower claim amount is to shame auto manufacturers into making vehicles that do a better job of protecting their occupants, and do a better job of protecting the vehicles from fender-bender damage.  So, while the motives are not entirely altruistic (and whose are, really?), the outcome means safer vehicles for all of us.

Among the various factors that the IIHS looks at when evaluating whether a vehicle is a top pick, the institute conducts a 40 mile per hour frontal offset crash test.  This type of test makes occupant protection very difficult, because the full crash forces are applied to only about half of the front bumper.  Poorly performing vehicles typically see the A-pillar area collapse and the passenger’s footwell is intruded upon.  There is also a side impact test where a sled strikes the vehicle at 31 miles per hour (representing a pickup or SUV impact).  Rollover impact is tested by compressing a metal bar against one side of the roof and judging whether the roof can withstand four times the vehicle’s weight while compressing only five inches.  Finally, rear impact crashworthiness is assessed by evaluating head restraint geometry (height and distance from the dummy’s head) and a dynamic test that simulates a 20 mile per hour rear collision.

In order to receive a top safety pick designation, a vehicle must be rated “good” in all four of the above tests, and must also have standard or optional electronic stability control.  The combination of the four tests (frontal offset, side impact, roof strength, and rear impact) address the four most common types of vehicle accidents, including those most responsible for driver and passenger injuries and deaths.

Hyundai/Kia and Volkswagen/Audi each had the most winners, at nine vehicles each, followed closely by General Motors, Ford/Lincoln, and Toyota/Lexus/Scion with eight winners each.  Subaru only had five winners, but has a top pick winner in every class in which it competes.  The winners for 2011 were:

ALL 66 WINNERS (red indicates newly-announced winners for 2011)

Large cars
Buick LaCrosse
Buick Regal
BMW 5 series (except 4-wheel drive and V8)
Cadillac CTS sedan
Ford Taurus
Hyundai Genesis
Infinite M37/M56 (except M56x 4-wheel drive)
Lincoln MKS
Mercedes E class coupe
Mercedes E class sedan
Toyota Avalon
Volvo S80

Midsize cars
Audi A3
Audi A4 sedan
Chevrolet Malibu
Chrysler 200 4-door
Dodge Avenger
Ford Fusion
Hyundai Sonata
Kia Optima
Lincoln MKZ
Mercedes C class
Subaru Legacy
Subaru Outback
Volkswagen Jetta sedan
Volkswagen Jetta SportWagen
Volvo C30

Small cars
Chevrolet Cruze
Honda Civic 4-door models (except Si) with optional electronic stability control
Kia Forte sedan
Kia Soul
Mitsubishi Lancer sedan (except 4-wheel drive)
Nissan Cube
Scion tC
Scion xB
Subaru Impreza sedan and hatchback (except WRX)
Volkswagen Golf 4-door
Volkswagen GTI 4-door

Minicar
Ford Fiesta sedan and hatchback built after July 2010

Minivan
Toyota Sienna

Large SUV
Volkswagen Touareg

Midsize SUVs
Audi Q5
Cadillac SRX
Chevrolet Equinox
Dodge Journey
Ford Explorer
Ford Flex
GMC Terrain
Hyundai Santa Fe
Jeep Grand Cherokee
Kia Sorento built after March 2010
Lexus RX
Lincoln MKT
Mercedes GLK
Subaru Tribeca
Toyota Highlander
Toyota Venza
Volvo XC60
Volvo XC90

Small SUVs
Honda Element
Hyundai Tucson
Jeep Patriot (with optional side torso airbags)
Kia Sportage
Subaru Forester
Volkswagen Tiguan

Though these ratings are far from the only reason to purchase a new car, they’re an important consideration for many buyers, and with vehicles today safer than ever, the NHTSA’s five-star rating scale is perhaps too easy of a hurdle for automakers to clear.  It’s good that the gadflies at IIHS are calling out the automakers who have engineered safety into their vehicles.  The more vehicles that earn “top pick” designation, however, the more likely it will be that a future “top pick” will have even more stringent requirements.  That’s good from a safety standpoint and from the insurance industry’s point of view, but will cost consumers more upfront.

Author: Chris Haak

Chris is Autosavant's Managing Editor. He has a lifelong love of everything automotive, having grown up as the son of a car dealer. A married father of two sons, Chris is also in the process of indoctrinating them into the world of cars and trucks.

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