The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) awarded thirty-four 2008 model vehicles the Top Safety Pick rating, more than double the number of vehicles that earned the rating in 2007. Eligible vehicles traditionally included all cars, minivans and small or midsize SUVs, while this year, small and large pickups were also eligible to earn the IIHS's top rating.

To pick the winners, the IIHS evaluates the each vehicle's combined performance of three individual crash tests. For 2008, Ford Motor Company stands out as the manufacturer with the most vehicles on the list with eight winners, helped by the performance of its Volvo models. Honda, including vehicles from its luxury division Acura, produced seven top picks.

2008 Top Safety Picks from IIHS
Large CarsAudi A6, Ford Taurus*, Mercury Sable* & Volvo S80
Midsize CarsAudi A3, Audi A4, Honda Accord, Saab 9-3 & Subaru Legacy*
Midsize ConvertiblesSaab 9-3 & Volvo C70
Small CarSubaru Impreza*
MinivansHonda Odyssey, Hyundai Entourage & Kia Sedona
Midsize SUVsAcura MDX, Acura RDX, BMW X3, BMW X5, Ford Edge, Ford Taurus X, Honda Pilot, Hyundai Santa Fe, Hyundai Veracruz**, Lincoln MKX, Mercedes M-Class, Saturn VUE**, Subaru Tribeca, Toyota Highlander & Volvo XC90
Small SUVsHonda CR-V, Honda Element & Subaru Forester*
Large PickupToyota Tundra
*With optional electronic stability control, **Built after August 2007

Understanding the Tests

To best understand the severe nature of the IIHS tests, here's a quick summary of what vehicles are put through. Frontal crash tests ram the vehicle into an offset barrier at 40 mph. The impact simulates two vehicles hitting head-on, similar to what might happen on a two-lane road. Experts evaluate the results based on "injuries" sustained by the crash dummies sitting inside the vehicle. Reviewing slow motion film of the crash allows them to further assess the performance of the restraint system.

Side-impact tests involve a stationary vehicle that is hit by a moving barrier traveling at 31 mph. This test simulates the damage similar to being rammed by a large SUV or pickup truck. Results are once again evaluated based on injury to the dummies along with effectiveness of the side airbags and the movement of the B-pillar, the vertical column right behind the front seat, into the passenger compartment.

The rear crash test is the most recent addition to the program. Vehicles are first categorized based on quality of head protection based on seat and restraint design. If a satisfactory rating is received in this first review, a rear impact test is performed. This test specifies that a stationary vehicle is hit from behind with a barrier moving at 20 mph. Then head and neck strain on the dummy are measured to determine the results of the test.

Electronics Play a Part in Safety

While the three crash tests give researchers insight into the performance of a vehicle during a crash, the recent widespread availability of Electronic Stability Control (ESC) systems helps prevent many accidents from happening in the first place. "Vehicles should be designed to provide good occupant protection when crashes occur, but now with ESC, we have the possibility of preventing many crashes altogether," says Adrian Lund, IIHS president.

Automakers have many different names for their ESC systems, but the systems take the concept of anti-lock brakes to the next level with overall vehicle stability enhancement. These complex systems are able to help a driver maintain control with precision application of the brakes and sophisticated traction control electronics. ESC systems can sense a spin or skid happening, and can intervene to prevent this potentially dangerous happening.

For a vehicle to qualify as a Top Pick, the IIHS requires that the vehicle must be available with ESC.

Vehicles Are Getting Safer

It used to be that only the most expensive vehicles had advanced safety equipment. Perception might also cause one to think that larger vehicles are safer. This is clearly not the case in 2008. The IIHS list names winners from affordable mainstream brands, with vehicles as compact as the Audi A3 and Saab 9-3.

Seeing the progress from year to year is encouraging. Looking at historical IIHS data, front crash ratings show the highest performance results. It is generally the side and rear tests that cause models to suffer. Recently, however, due to the improving design of side-curtain airbags, side crash ratings have significantly improved.

The rear impact tests uncover an area with room for improvement, and this 2004 addition to the testing program is inspiring changes for the better in many vehicles. For example, redesigned seat/head restraints in the Honda Accord, Element and Odyssey along with the BMW X3 and X5 have now earned a "good" rating, which is a huge jump from the previous "poor" or "marginal" ratings. The importance of such changes is amplified with the awareness that an additional 23 vehicles would have earned an award in 2008 had it been for a modification in their seat/head restraints.

Twenty-three vehicles earn good ratings in front and side crash tests. They have ESC, standard or optional. They would be 2008 Top Safety Pick winners if their seat/head restraints also earned good ratings:
Acura RL & TL
BMW 3-Series
Chrysler Sebring Convertible
Infiniti M35 & M45
Kia Amanti
Lexus IS 250 & 350, ES 350, GS 350 & 460
Nissan Pathfinder & Xterra (both with optional side airbags)
Nissan Quest
Toyota Avalon, Camry, FJ Cruiser, 4Runner, Prius, RAV4, & Sienna
Volkswagen Eos, Jetta, Passat, Rabbit

What These Tests Mean

The IIHS tests make it easy to evaluate the relative safety performance of various models. By visiting IIHS online, it's easy to see how your favorite new car, truck or SUV did in the IIHS testing.

What impressed us most about these results is the fact that high-performance safety is no longer something offered only by expensive European names. Ford's affordable Taurus and Sable, along with their new crossovers (Ford Edge and Lincoln MKX) are top picks. High-volume models from Subaru, Saturn, and Kia also made the list. With today's technology, safety can be something any new car buyer can afford.

About the author: Rex Roy is a Detroit-based automotive writer and journalist. His new book, Motor City Dream Garages, will be on shelves in November.

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