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In late 2012, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), a nonprofit organization of insurance companies, reported that only three of eleven midsize luxury cars scored a "good rating" on a new crash test that simulated a smaller frontal collision.

Among the cars tested? The Infiniti G37, BMW 3 Series, and Mercedes-Benz C-Class—all cars that have a stellar reputation for sound engineering, smooth looks, and assumed safety. But apparently spending more for your wheels doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll enjoy superior protection in a crash.

Car Crashes Still a Leading Cause of Death

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that motor vehicle crashes are one of the leading causes of death in the U.S., with more than 2.3 million adult drivers and passengers treated in emergency departments in 2009.

In New York alone, the cost of deaths from motor vehicle crashes—including medical and work loss costs—was $41 billion in 2005. This doesn’t take into account the impact on the victims’ families. Other states, including Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Michigan, Indiana, and Ohio, all experienced an increase in car-crash fatalities in 2010.

Yet a Consumer Reports survey in 2012 revealed that when ranking factors in purchasing a car, the majority of consumers consider safety first, over quality, value, and performance. Unfortunately, evaluating the safety of a car is not always as easy as you may think.

Luxury Cars Typically Test Better

Every year, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) conducts crash tests on new vehicles and reports the results on the website. The IIHS also conducts its own testing program and issues its own safety ratings, and Consumer Reports has an auto issue that rates vehicles in terms of overall safety.

A thorough examination of the safety of a car will likely involve a review of several safety reports. When looking at general crash-test scores, luxury vehicles typically have good ratings. At the end of 2011, for example, of the 15 midsize luxury SUVs rated by IIHS, 13 earned good ratings in frontal, side-impact, and rear crashes. Meanwhile, a lower percentage of midsize nonluxury SUVs made the grade.

Similar results were found for luxury cars, with 12 of 17 scoring "good" in main tests (71 percent), and for nonluxury cars only 5 of 9 (56 percent) scored "good." But the new test created by IIHS in 2012 changed the outcome a bit.

Family Cars Score Better Than Luxury on Narrow Offset Test

In 2012, however, the IIHS simulated a different type of crash—one in which the vehicle strikes a vertical, thin object such as a pole or a tree at 40 miles per hour. Called the "narrow offset" test, it is a more severe test than the typical frontal-crash tests, and puts more stress on a car’s front corners and wheel assemblies.

The IIHS says that this kind of crash is a major cause of fatalities, and one that normally goes unaddressed when car manufacturers are designing for safety.

"Nearly every new car performs well in other frontal crash tests conducted by the institute and the federal government," said IIHS President Adrian Lund, "but we still see more than 10,000 deaths in frontal crashes each year."

Out of the 11 luxury cars tested in this new crash, only two—the Volvo S60 and the Acura TL—scored "good." The Infinity G sedan was rated "acceptable," while the other eight 2013 models, including the Lincoln MKZ, Volkswagen CC, Lexus ES and IS, and Audi A4, rated "marginal" or "poor." Meanwhile, more mass-market midsize family cars like the Ford Fusion, Honda Accord coupe, Kia Optima, and Dodge Avenger received "acceptable" marks on the crash.

Raising the Bar on Safety

The new test "raises the bar" on safety expectations, and will likely encourage companies to make improvements in response to the challenge. Meanwhile, when considering your next car purchase, you may want to look a little deeper than the name brand. Check as many safety results as possible to get a better overall picture of how your new vehicle may perform in a crash situation.

Some things to look for when shopping for safety:

  • A full set of airbags
  • Adjustable head restraints in all seating positions
  • A telescoping and tilting steering wheel
  • Adjustable pedals
  • Sonar and backup cameras
  • Weight—all other factors being equal, mass is an advantage
  • Electronic stability control and traction control
  • All-wheel drive
  • Forward collision warning

You can also check the IIHS Safety Awards to determine the crashworthiness of the car you’re thinking about bringing home.

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