How safe is your car?

In 2011, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) strengthened its criteria for evaluating car safety. And manufacturers rose to the challenge. While only 27 vehicles qualified for the IIHS' "Top Safety Pick" award in 2010, at least 66 cars have earned the distinction in 2011.

The more stringent safety standards encouraged innovation, according to IIHS President Adrian Lund, which benefits everyone on the road. Luxury and economy models alike passed muster -- so, no matter what their price points, consumers can find wheels that let them hit the road safely.

The tests

Safer cars mean fewer accidents -- and a vehicle's ability to protect you and repel expensive is damage is one thing that auto insurance companies take into account when determining your premium.

So, what, exactly, makes a vehicle safe? This year, the IIHS conducted a battery of tests, including:

Front crash tests: Different tests were done at different speeds. This test involved a 40 mph frontal crash. Safety was determined by how much "intrusion" there was into the passenger and driver compartments, as well as how much the crash test dummies moved around during the crash.

Side tests: The side tests involved speeds of just 31 mph. The tests mocked up what might happen if a pickup truck or SUV slammed into the side of the car. They also used crash test dummies to assess potential head injuries, structural damage and structural performance.

Roof strength: Roof strength tests sought to determine how a vehicle might respond to a rollover. Metal plates were forced against the roof. If it buckled only 5 inches after being crushed at a force of four times the vehicle's weight, it was considered to have a good strength-to-weight ratio.

Of course, these tests can't possibly assess all of the dynamic conditions that occur during real-life crashes. But IIHS experts contend that the tests help customers protect themselves and their families. In fact, they might be able to save on auto insurance as well, because insurers often are willing to give discounts for safety features.

The big winners

Hyundai/Kia and Volkswagen/Audi each won nine Top Safety Pick awards for 2011 (as of March). Ford/Lincoln, Toyota/Lexus/Scion and General Motors came in second, with eight winning vehicles each. Overall, the winners encompassed a variety of sizes and types:

  • Twelve large cars won, including the Lincoln MKS, Volvo S80 and Cadillac CTS Sedan.
  • Sixteen midsize cars won, including the Audi A3, Lincoln MKZ, Subaru Legacy and Chevrolet Malibu.
  • Twelve small cars won, including the Mitsubishi Lancer Sedan, Scion xB, Toyota Corolla and Volkswagen Golf 4-Door.
  • One mini car won -- the Ford Fiesta Sedan and Hatchback, manufactured in the second half of 2010.
  • One minivan won -- the Toyota Sienna.
  • One large SUV won -- the Volkswagen Touareg.
  • Eighteen midsize SUVs won, including the Ford Flex, Mercedes GLK, Dodge Journey and Jeep Grand Cherokee.
  • Six small SUVs won, including the Jeep Patriot, Kia Sportage and Honda Element.

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