The Top Safety Pick designation is given to those vehicles that do the best job of protecting drivers and passengers in front, side, rollover, and rear crashes based on "good" ratings in IIHS tests – the organization's highest rating. IIHS's rating grades are "good," "acceptable," "marginal" and "poor." However, last year, the IIHS toughened its standards, adding the requirement that all qualifiers must earn a "good" rating in IIHS roof-strength tests that measure how much protection is offered in a rollover crash. That stricter standard sharply narrowed the initial field of 2010 models. But many carmakers have improved the roofs of their vehicles in the last year.
"We added the roof-strength requirement after our research confirmed the importance of roof strength when it comes to the seriousness of injuries to persons involved in rollover crashes," said Russ Rader, IIHS vice president of communications. "Federal studies on fatality and injury data showed that vehicles with stronger roofs resulted in the occupants having a much lower rate of serious injuries."
Hyundai/Kia and Volkswagen/Audi led the pack -- each have nine models in the '11 model-year winner's circle. Tied for second, with eight winners each, are General Motors, Ford/Lincoln, and Toyota/Lexus/Scion. Subaru is the only manufacturer that had a winner in all the vehicle classes in which it competed, with five models earning Top Safety Pick designations.
In IIHS's roof strength test, a metal plate is pushed against one side of a roof at a displacement rate of 0.2 inch per second. To earn a "good" rating for rollover protection, the roof must withstand a force of four times the vehicle's weight before reaching five inches of crush. This is the vehicle's "strength-to-weight" ratio.
That IIHS standard for a "good" rating for rollover crash protection is twice as tough as the current federal standard. The IIHS estimates that the roofs it deems strong enough for a "good" rating will reduce the risk of serious and fatal injury in single-vehicle rollovers by about 50 percent, compared to roofs that meet the minimum federal requirement.
At the beginning of the 2010 model year, after IIHS toughened its requirement, only 27 vehicles qualified for the award, but carmakers re-worked existing designs and introduced new models with stronger roofs. This increased the number of qualifiers to 58 by September of 2010. Now, for 2011, another 10 vehicles join the winners' list, while two discontinued models dropped off.
This means that consumers shopping for a safer new vehicle have "plenty of choices to consider in most dealer showrooms," said Adrian Lund, IIHS president. "In fact, every major automaker has at least one winning model this year."
Carmakers are only legally required to include the vehicle's National Highway Transportation and Safety Administration's safety rating on its sticker, but more of them are also including the IIHS rating, added Rader. "And carmakers also like to say in their advertising that the vehicle was an IIHS Top Safety Pick."
One first-time winner is the Ford Explorer, which boasts a new design that includes the stronger roof-protection rating. Until this model year, the Explorer had never earned a Top Safety Pick rating. Ford also upgraded the roof of two of its midsize SUVs, the Ford Flex and Lincoln MKT, and did the same with the midsize Ford Fusion and Lincoln MKZ sedans. The latter both missed out on the initial round of 2010 winners because they did not have the required roof strength at the time.
The Ford Fiesta rounds out Ford's winners and is the only minicar to earn a Top Safety Pick rating for the '11 model year.
With the Chevrolet Cruze, GM offers another choice for consumers who are looking to buy a safe but fuel-efficient small car. GM designed the Cruze, which has 10 standard airbags (including ones for the knees), in such a way that it would outperform the federal government's minimum roof strength requirements.
The other Detroit carmaker, Chrysler, added torso airbags to the redesigned Jeep Grand Cherokee to bolster side crash protection and earn a "good" side-crash rating. The previous design relied on head-curtain airbags to cushion occupants in side crashes and was only rated "marginal" for side protection.
Volkswagen's redesigned Touareg is the only large SUV to earn a Top Safety Pick designation for 2011. The Institute doesn't normally evaluate SUVs as big as the Touareg, but Volkswagen requested crash tests to demonstrate the new Touareg's crashworthiness. "Big, heavy vehicles like that already start with a high level of safety, because of their size and bulk," said Rader, "So, we typically don't use our resources to test those, but VW asked for a special test for this redesigned version."
None of the small pickups the Institute has evaluated qualified for this year's award, and large 2011-model-year pickup trucks have not yet been tested.