By Jim Gorzelany CTW Features

 Several popular upscale models missed the mark under the latest insurance-industry testing procedures. Several popular upscale models missed the mark under the latest insurance-industry testing procedures. I t could be argued that crash tests, conducted by both government and independent sources, have gone a long way toward making our nation’s cars safer than ever.

While a large number of models tend to do well in such evaluations, every so often the proverbial bar gets raised via more rigorous testing, sending automakers back to the drawing boards to re-engineer their models to meet what are essentially de facto higher safety standards.

Earlier this year the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety instituted more rigorous frontal crash-testing procedures, and the first round of results found that many popular luxury cars missed the mark. Only three out of the 11 models tested under the Institute’s new “small overlap frontal crash test” earned what would be considered passing ratings.

The Acura TL and Volvo S60 received “good” ratings in the newly implemented test, while the Infiniti G earned “acceptable” marks. Popular models like the Acura TSX, BMW 3 Series, Lincoln MKZ and Volkswagen CC garnered “marginal” ratings, while the Mercedes-Benz C-Class, Lexus IS 250/350, Audi A4 and Lexus ES 350 flunked out entirely with “poor” ratings.

Most of the models evaluated in the overlap test, including those that received marginal and poor ratings, were otherwise named IIHS “top safety picks” for top scores in the Institute’s other front, side and rear-impact crash tests, all which will remain in the Institute’s regimen.

A combination of safer cars and stricter state seatbelt and DUI laws have helped reduce traffic fatalities by about 25 percent from 2005 to 2009, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The IIHS says the number of drivers of up to 3-year-old vehicles involved in fatal frontal crashes has dropped by 55 percent since 2001. And for the first time since such data was collected, crash-related deaths are no longer among the top 10 causes of death in the U.S. (They now stand at number 11.) Still, nearly 33,000 people lost their lives in motor vehicle accidents during 2010, the most recent year for which NHTSA has full data. “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,” says IIHS president Adrian Lund. “Small overlap crashes are a major source of these fatalities. This new test program is based on years of analyzing real-world frontal crashes and then replicating them in our crash test facility to determine how people are being seriously injured and how cars can be designed to protect them better.”

Here, cars are smashed at 40 mph with only 25 percent of a car’s front end on the driver side striking a five-foot tall rigid barrier. The Institute says the test is designed to replicate what happens when the front corner of a car strikes another vehicle or an object like a tree or utility pole in more of glancing blow, rather than a full-on or offset frontal collision.

The IIHS says small overlap crashes tend to evaluate the crashworthiness of a car’s outer edges that tend not to be well protected structurally by so-called crush zones; they’re also said to test a vehicle’s airbags and seatbelts in more rigorous ways than frontal tests. Crash forces in these types of collisions go directly into the front wheel, suspension system and firewall, which the IIHS contends results in serious leg and foot injuries.

It should be noted that the IIHS is an is an insurance-industry association, and critics contend its testing is largely conducted with that business in mind. To that end it would seem the Institute’s latest small overlap crash tests have more to do with predicting the probability of lower-extremity injuries (and, in turn, injury claims) than overall survival.

At any rate, expect these and other scores under the new testing procedure to create a dustup among automakers in the coming weeks and months as they scramble to help ensure at least vehicles for 2014 and beyond pass muster under the IIHS’ new test.

© CTW Features