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click above image to view high-res gallery of the 2008 Ford Focus SES Coupe

Reminding us once again that there's more than meets the eye when shopping for a vehicle are recent impact tests performed by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety that measure how much it costs to fix a vehicle after after a low-speed accident. Sure, we're all interested in safety and styling, but we should also be concerned with how much these low-speed impacts will cost to repair. The winner of the testing was the Ford Focus, which scored light damage all the way around. The IIHS heaped praise on Ford for designing a bumper that can truly take a bump -- a novel idea.

Amazingly, some small cars like the Hyundai Elantra, Toyota Prius and VW Rabbit cost up to a third of the car's worth to fix from damage resulting from a minor impact. That's a big problem for any car, but especially so for those sold on the merits of economy. To prove that it's not too difficult for auto manufacturers to design a better bumper, the IIHS made a few simple changes to a Prius that didn't affect the looks of the car. After retesting, it made it through the impact tests with a fraction of the damage. For the complete rundown on the testing procedures and results, click past the break.

[Source: IIHS]


Most small cars aren't economical for crash repairs:

Ford Focus performs the best; Rabbit & Prius are the worst in bumper tests

ARLINGTON, VA - Low-speed collisions happen every day in commuter traffic and parking lots. These "fender benders" end up costing car owners a lot of money and aggravation because the bumpers on many cars aren't designed to handle what should be a no-damage event.

In a series of crash tests, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety recently assessed how well the bumpers of 20 small car models would protect the vehicles from damage in low-speed collisions. The worst performers are the Hyundai Elantra, Toyota Prius, and Volkswagen Rabbit, each sustaining about $4,000 damage or more in a single test. The Ford Focus performed the best, with about one-third that amount of damage in its worst test.

"Small cars are supposed to be economical, but there's nothing economical about three or four thousand dollars in repairs after a low-speed collision," says Institute senior vice president Joe Nolan. "Ford did the best job of putting bumpers on a small car that largely do what they're supposed to do. In 3 of the 4 tests, the bumpers on the Focus protected sheet metal and most other expensive parts from damage."

Why bumpers don't bump: To assess and compare bumper performance in low-speed impacts, the Institute conducts a series of 4 crash tests - full front and rear into a barrier designed to mimic the front or back bumper on another vehicle plus front and rear corner impacts. The full-width impacts are conducted at 6 mph while the corner impacts are run at 3 mph.

The purpose of a bumper is to absorb the energy of a low-speed collision and slow the vehicles before there's damage to expensive-to-repair parts like fenders and hoods. But there are multiple problems, the first of which is that the bumpers on colliding vehicles often don't line up vertically so they don't engage to begin with. Even some that do line up don't stay engaged during an impact. Modern front-end styling results in bumper designs that can either slide under the bumpers of vehicles they strike or that simply don't have enough room to absorb the energy of a low-speed crash. Even if they do engage the bumper of the vehicle they crash into, the bars underneath bumper covers often aren't up to absorbing the energy. They may not be big enough to provide much protection from damage, especially if they don't extend to vehicle corners, or they may be too flimsy to absorb much energy.

Focus bumpers show effort by Ford: Bumpers have to be tall enough to engage, and to stay engaged with the bumpers on other vehicles in collisions, even during emergency braking. Otherwise the bumpers bypass each other when the vehicles collide, overriding and underriding so that crash energy goes right through and crumples the vehicle body.

The front bumper of the Focus is tall enough to do a reasonably good job in the full-width test. Repairs cost less than $600. In contrast, damage to the Elantra of nearly $5,000 in the same test is equal to almost one-third of the car's sales price.

"The Focus shows that decent bumpers don't have to be heavy or costly," says Nolan. "Many consumers are turning to small cars for better fuel economy, but damage in our tests approached luxury car territory. Savings at the pump could be more than offset by a single low-speed collision in one of these so-called economy cars."

Underride is a frequent cause of significant damage in the tests, just like in real-world crashes. For example, the front bumpers of the Rabbit and Honda Civic underrode the barrier in the front full-width test resulting in damage to their grilles, hoods, fenders, and air-conditioning condensers. Similarly, the Prius sustained nearly $4,000 damage in the rear full-width test because its bumper is mounted too low to be in position to protect the vehicle's tailgate, rear body panel, and taillights.

In the front corner test of the right side of the Prius, damage was much less, about $1,200, involving the fender and headlight. But had the test been conducted on the left side, the barrier would have crushed a coolant tank which costs more than $1,000 to replace, not including labor.

The cost of big ticket engine components is one thing, but something else driving repair costs are the prices of everyday parts that require replacement after what should be minor collisions. For example, plastic bumper covers that fit over the bumper bars of modern cars don't cost the same. Among the small cars tested, the front covers on the Scions cost less than $500 to replace and refinish, but the Mitsubishi Lancer's front cover is twice as expensive. Headlights and taillights vary widely in cost, too. A taillight costs $205 to replace on the Prius compared with just $65 on the Focus.

Make bumpers wider and taller: To do an effective job of managing crash energy, the bars underneath bumper covers have to be long enough to protect car bodies out to the front and rear corners. If a bar doesn't extend far enough, a minor corner impact is likely to cause lots of damage, even compromising lights and other safety-related parts. Eleven of the cars in the full-front test and 18 in the front corner test required headlight replacement or repair.

To illustrate how small changes to bumper design can make a significant difference in repair costs, the Institute worked with Tech-Cor, the research division of Allstate Insurance, to modify the front bumper of the Prius. The reinforcement bar and foam absorber were extended another 10 inches on the passenger side under the headlight. When the Institute tested the Prius again, the headlight and fender were undamaged and the repair cost dropped from $1,200 to $254.

"There's plenty of room under the bumper covers of most cars to make this simple change," says Nolan.

The shape of the barrier the Institute uses to test bumpers represents a typical vehicle bumper. It's set at 16 inches from the ground in the corner test and 18 inches from the ground in the full-width test. The barrier height in the corner test matches the bumper zone specified in federal standards that require bumpers on cars. Because minivans, pickups, and SUVs aren't required to comply with the federal rule, Institute researchers set the barrier in the full-width test 2 inches higher to promote car bumper designs with a better chance of engaging the bumpers on these vehicles, which often are higher than typical car bumpers. The idea is that car bumpers should work not only in crashes with other cars, but also in crashes with other vehicles.

Better bumpers aren't complicated: It wouldn't take much for automakers to reduce the cost of repairing the damage that occurs in low-speed collisions. Nolan points to 3 main things automakers already know how to do and could be doing:

1. Make the bumper bars longer so they protect headlights and other critical and costly equipment at the corners of vehicles.
2. Make bumpers taller so they engage the bumpers on higher riding SUVs and pickup trucks instead of underriding them, even during emergency braking.
3. Don't sacrifice function for style by mounting bumpers too close to the car body. This makes for a sleek look, but it doesn't leave much room for absorbing crash energy. Mount bumper bars farther out and use the available space under a bumper cover for energy absorption.

"Bumpers on most cars aren't worthy of the term," Nolan says. "Even the best bumper in this group still allowed more than a thousand dollars damage in one 3 mph crash test. Some simple changes could prevent a lot of damage to cars, and expense and headaches for consumers."
Bumper performance in low-speed crash tests:
Ford Focus $588 $1,329 $529 $585 $3,031
Scion xB $789 $1,028 $868 $1,012 $3,697
Scion xD $1,135 $594 $1,499 $907 $4,135
Mazda 3 $1,117 $1,389 $1,120 $1,233 $4,859
Nissan Sentra $1,451 $1,684 $1,043 $730 $4,908
Dodge Caliber $1,408 $1,285 $1,966 $663 $5,322
Subaru Impreza $2,023 $1,705 $893 $1,072 $5,693
Suzuki SX4 $3,450 $965 $779 $657 $5,851
Saturn Astra $2,774 $962 $1,550 $612 $5,898
Nissan Versa $2,795 $1,213 $1,429 $715 $6,152
Mitsubishi Lancer $1,939 $1,569 $1,642 $1,228 $6,378
Toyota Corolla $3,444 $1,203 $863 $1,295 $6,805
Chevrolet Cobalt $3,654 $1,169 $929 $1,101 $6,853
Honda Civic $4,328 $917 $883 $751 $6,879
Chevrolet HHR $2,259 $1,491 $2,227 $1,440 $7,417
Kia Spectra $3,430 $979 $2,505 $675 $7,589
Chrysler PT Cruiser $3,642 $1,627 $2,138 $854 $8,261
Hyundai Elantra $4,954 $2,090 $1,304 $628 $8,976
Toyota Prius $2,876 $1,208 $3,964 $1,022 $9,070
Volkswagon Rabbit $4,078 $1,841 $2,775 $817 $9,511

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    • 1 Second Ago
      • 6 Years Ago
      I just find it a lot easier to drive a Jeep... had a Camry rear end me at a red light a few years ago, it was undriveable and I had about a 10" scratch in my steel bumper. I really don't ever want to have to deal with a car with this "crumple zone" nonsense :)
        • 6 Years Ago
        You kno what's keeping me from driving a Jeep? The fact that its a Jeep (if you're talking about a Wrangler, that is)
        • 6 Years Ago
        You'll wish you had a crumple zone if you hit an immovable barrier like a tree someday.
      • 6 Years Ago
      I don't care what any institute says or rates this car. i still will prefer waiting for the Euro Focus.

      Even if it does not make sense to some i still highly will always prefer design quality over safety. if it has both then that will be 2 out of 4 on my buying decision score card. My decisions of purchase weigh highly on 4 factors. #1 is Design, which is 40 points, #2 is Quality of fit and finish, which is 25 points, #3 is reliability, which is 25 points, #4 is safety, which is 10 points. The others are just extra benefits that the car comes with such as features, gadgets, and services. All of those extras are .5 points
      • 6 Years Ago
      Given those numbers, if I drove a Focus I'd probably crash it hoping the repairs would make it more visually appealing.
        • 6 Years Ago
        I think the crash would make it more visually appealing than the repairs would.
      • 6 Years Ago
      I would keep it crashed, maybe it would look better. Thank god that here in Mexico we have the euro focus!!!
      • 6 Years Ago
      These bumper tests have nothing to do with the safety of the vehicle. It's all about minimizing the payouts of the insurance companies.

      Remember - IIHS is not a government agency, they are funded entirely by insurance companies and are motivated to improve the bottom line of these companies.
        • 6 Years Ago
        John, I don't quite get your logic. Insurance companies pay for injury claims too, not just auto damage claims. Injury claims are much more expensive too, dontcha think?
        • 6 Years Ago
        I believe the point is that due to the fact that the Focus incurrs less damage than comparable models the insurance industry will grace it with better premium rates. So this is a positive for the Focus.
        • 6 Years Ago
        The bumper tests are done a low speed < 5MPH. There is no safety benefit to the occupant at those speeds.

        Automakers design and test parts to specifically meet this test raising the overall cost of the vehicle. Consumers pay more for a car because of this added burden to OEM's while the insurance companies are reaping all the benefits. There is no reduced rates for consumers, even in the best preforming vehicle as a result of these tests. All the money goes into the pockets of the insurance comapny.
        • 6 Years Ago
        "These bumper tests have nothing to do with the safety of the vehicle. It's all about minimizing the payouts of the insurance companies."

        I don't know why you make the assumption that insurers just care about the physical damage to the vehicles, because its flat out wrong. While property damage claims are more frequent, bodily injury claims are usually much more severe. In this instance, they are simply stating that the vehicle is cheaper to repair after those less severe but more frequent fender-benders.
        • 6 Years Ago
        "Remember - IIHS is not a government agency, they are funded entirely by insurance companies and are motivated to improve the bottom line of these companies."

        ...by endorsing a car that incurs less expensive damage when it's involved in a low-speed collision. THE HORROR! Those assholes! How dare they talk about how a car can save money in repairs.

      • 6 Years Ago
      Seems to me a lot of things affect the cost of a repair besides the design of the car. Replacement part prices, for one example. But I think a lot depends on luck. Years ago I was rear-ended in my '92 Civic by a pickup of some sort, and all I suffered was a scratched bumper. It was a hard enough impact that I was concerned about my passengers' necks. (Everyone was okay.)

      But my point is that some of the expensive-to-repair cars on this list might have done poorly in this particular test, but could do better if the impact were slightly different. YMMV (Your Misery May Vary)
      • 6 Years Ago
      After the hazmat team arrives at your Prius accident, the the rest is just pocket change.
      • 6 Years Ago
      Why is the Euro focus so much better looking than the american one?
        • 6 Years Ago
        and here we go again
        • 6 Years Ago
        Who wants to take a shot at answering this question?
      • 6 Years Ago
      The current Focus may be visually challenged, but it does a lot of things right.
        • 6 Years Ago
        Quite right P B. I'm coming round to the new Focus, which carries the Escort standard for the very same reasons: ubiquity, affordability, solidity and reliability.

        But I could have forgiven the over-wrought styling had the car offered much simpler climate and audio controls, and the availability of a hatch model.

        Even the interior styling now makes sense to me, having seen the family resemblance in the Flex and MKS.
        • 6 Years Ago
        I drove a fleet Focus for a day and managed to get over 40 mpg out of it on the hwy, driving 70 mph with three people in the car according to the cars computer. It was pretty impressive from an efficiency perspective.
        • 6 Years Ago
        I agree. Leather seats, SYNC, Decent Cargo room, an engine that makes the Focus a PZEV, Great interior (minus the fact that there are no headrests in the back or grab handles) and 35MPG is a winning deal in my book, but good looks wouldn't hurt, either.
        • 6 Years Ago
        Uhh, what else besides this does it do right, exactly?
      • 6 Years Ago
      Here in Germany insurances have a standardized crash that is typical for accidents in the city: relatively low speed, usually damaged fender, front panel and bonnet. The cost to repair the damage is then used to calculate the cost of the insurance. Since low insurance is important for marketing, car manufacturers sometime sell spare parts below their price, e.g. the front wing of the first Mercedes Benz A Class just cost around $60 some years ago, on my Peugeot 307 the wings are made from cheap molded plastic that elastically deforms in the standardized crash. Just bend it back (warm please) and give it a new paint.
      • 6 Years Ago
      I can attest to the Ford Focus reliabillity. Had a rear end in collision in my Ford, it was fine minus a little paint missing. The car that collided into my rear had over 5 thousand dollars in damage.
      • 6 Years Ago
      Based on the numbers it's probably ridiculously easy to total a VW rabbit or an Elantra since the repairs so easily eat up most of the value of the car...damn... Cheap cars shouldn't be that expensive to repair!
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