Many Americans believe sport utility vehicles, or SUVs, and pickup trucks cause extensive damage to passenger cars when they collide just because they're bigger and heavier. While pure size may come into play, the real culprit in low-speed collisions may be the mismatch between the height of the bumpers on each.

SUVs, pickup trucks and minivans sold in the United States are not required by the federal government to have bumpers at all. And while many manufacturers do put bumpers on them, they typically do not match up with passenger cars which are required to have bumper systems placed in a range of 16 to 20 inches from the ground.

What's more, SUV and truck bumpers are usually pretty flimsy. "Most truck and SUV bumpers are purely decorative,'' says Russ Rader, a spokesman for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety -- an insurance-industry-funded center that routinely does crash tests on a wide selection of vehicles.

Too high, too low

Years ago, this was not such an issue, but as the popularity of SUVs and pickups has soared, so has the problem of the mismatch.

What that could mean for consumers is an unexpectedly costly repair bill resulting from even the most minor of accidents.

Five years ago Rader's group subjected seven pickups and SUVs to 5 mph collisions and found that, even when equipped with bumpers, almost all sustained expensive damage. Damage back then ranged from more than $1,000 for a Chevrolet Silverado to more than $2,000 for a RAV4.

Manufacturers have criticized such tests as not being representative of real-world situations and say they ignore the overall safety features of vehicles. Rader acknowledges that the issue isn't safety-related -- bumpers usually have little to do with protecting occupants in a crash. "Bumpers really have little impact on safety. It's a cost thing,'' he says.

To illustrate the problem of bumper mismatch, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, or IIHS, tested several passenger cars and SUVs with rear-end collisions at 10 miles an hour.

The tests involved the following cars in rear-end collisions:

Ford Taurus versus Ford Explorer (SUV)

Volvo S40 versus Volvo XC90 (SUV)

Dodge Stratus versus Jeep Grand Cherokee (SUV)

Nissan Altima versus Nissan Murano (SUV)

Toyota RAV4 (SUV) versus another Toyota RAV4 (SUV)

View the damage reports and the repair costs in the slideshow below.

Buyers should beware because while the cost of repairs from even minor collisions has jumped in recent years, many people, simultaneously, are opting for higher deductibles on their auto insurance policies in order to keep premiums down.

Deductible will get you

So if a driver carries $1,000 or even $500 deductibles on his policy he could wind up paying almost all of a repair bill from a low-speed crash.

"Without a bumper there is nothing there to protect the expensive sheet metal or other equipment,'' Rader says.

While the federal government at one time required car bumpers to withstand 5-mph impacts without damage to such things as headlights and taillights, that standard was cut to 2.5 mph during the Reagan administration as carmakers pleaded that they needed to go to lighter bumpers to meet fuel economy standards.

A more recent test, conducted by the Insurance Institute in 2004, focused on crash damage resulting from collisions of SUVs with passenger cars with distinct differences in bumper heights.

In the 10-mph test crashes repair costs ran as high as $6,100 for both vehicles.

Collisions between cars at that speed cause less damage because the bumper systems match up in the 16 to 20-inch range and absorb more of the impact. But when an SUV or truck collides with a passenger car, the bumpers rarely align.

"You end up having a crash where the bumpers aren't even involved,'' Rader says. Some 10-mph crashes resulted in damage that disabled one or both vehicles.

"You don't expect such a low-speed crash to make a vehicle un-drivable,'' Rader says.

Worst case: no bumper

Sometimes there will be no bumper damage at all for the SUV -- because there's no bumper. The next time you're sitting behind a Toyota RAV4 at a traffic light, look for the rear bumper. Lean forward and squint all you want -- even clean your glasses if you think it might help. But you won't see one -- at least not one that would protect the vehicle in a crash.

That's because the RAV4, like all sport utility vehicles, pickup trucks and minivans sold in the United States, isn't required by the federal government to have bumpers. While many manufacturers do put bumpers on their trucks and SUVs, there's no guarantee that the bumpers can withstand even the smallest of parking-lot taps without sustaining damage.

10 mph front-into-rear crash tests

Car into SUVCar






Ford Taurus into Explorer$1,784$824$2,608
Chevrolet Malibu into


Dodge Stratus into Jeep

Grand Cherokee

Nissan Altima into Murano$4,507$1,188$5,695
Volvo S40 into XC90$4,984$1,096$6,080
SUV into carSUV






Ford Explorer into Taurus$701$555$1,256
Volvo XC90

into S40

Chevrolet TrailBlazer

into Malibu

Nissan Murano into Altima$2,517$2,485$5,002
Jeep Grand Cherokee into

Dodge Stratus


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