The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) Top Safety Pick and Top Safety Pick+ awards are given to vehicles that perform admirably in crash testing and other evaluations performed by the organization. Top Safety Pick awards were first granted in 2006, while the more stringent Top Safety Pick+ award came out in 2013. For 2020, the standards were updated again, with even tougher criteria for both TSP and TSP+ awards. Due to the stricter standards, the list of 2020 Top Safety Pick+ award winners is far shorter than the 2019 winners list.
Different vehicle sizes are tested in their own separate categories, and these tests have become more rigorous over time. Because the criteria change over time, safety ratings between model years are not always comparable.
Read on to learn more about the components that go into the awards.
Two organizations evaluate new cars for crashworthiness and safety systems in the United States. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is a government agency, while the IIHS is a nonprofit organization formed by the automobile insurance industry. The NHTSA can compel automakers to make changes to their vehicles. Modifications to cars in response to IIHS testing are voluntary, though public relations pressure can force automakers to respond to issues found in this organization’s testing.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is a U.S. government agency tasked with testing and enforcing motor vehicle and highway safety regulations. In addition to crash testing vehicles, they are the agency that oversees vehicle recalls and vehicle efficiency regulations.
The NHTSA is also charged with conducting the New Car Assessment Program, or NCAP. Vehicles can be compared against vehicles in their weight class, but not outside of their segment, as larger vehicles typically fare better in accidents than smaller ones. Their results appear on the price sticker, also called the Monroney sticker, in the windows of new cars for sale.
The NHTSA evaluates vehicles using multiple crash tests and one technical evaluation. The tests are comprised of frontal, side barrier, and side poll crashes. They also assess vehicles using a formula that predicts resistance to a rollover. From the tests, three scores – plus an overall score – are derived. The results are reported on a scale of one to five stars, with a five-star score being the highest possible rating.
The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), and its sister organization, the Highway Loss Data Institute (HLDI), are private nonprofit organizations funded by automobile insurance companies and insurance organizations.
The IIHS has the mission of reducing losses from motor vehicle crashes. They look at reducing not only deaths and injuries, but also property damage. They fulfill this mission by researching and reporting on crashworthiness, crash avoidance, and roadway design.
The HLDI looks at the insurance loss statistics for autos and other vehicles. By gathering data from most insurers, the organization can also assess the effectiveness of crash avoidance and injury prevention devices and technologies.
IIHS tests include side, roof strength, head restraint, moderate overlap front, and small overlap front crash tests for both the driver and passenger sides. The evaluations also test headlight performance and the availability of front crash prevention systems. Following each test, a vehicle earns a mark of Poor, Marginal, Acceptable, or the highest possible rating of Good.
From that battery of tests, the organization can identify vehicles that score well on all of their evaluations. Those vehicles receive either a Top Safety Pick or Top Safety Pick+ designation, with the TSP+ being the highest award. The IIHS also tests LATCH hardware for the easy installation of child car seats. That evaluation, however, is not included in the TSP and TSP+ criteria.
The tests performed by the two organizations are both aimed at determining the safest cars in a crash, but they do so with dramatically different test designs. For example, the NHTSA’s rollover test evaluates a vehicle’s resistance to flipping over. The IIHS rollover test, meanwhile, evaluates roof strength, should a rollover actually occur.
In general, if a car performs well on one organization’s tests, it should perform well on the other’s – though that's not always the case. Automakers design their vehicles to meet the testing criteria, and may adjust the structure of their products in ways that perform better on some tests than others.
In general, carmakers won’t design their cars in such a way that dramatically exceeds the crash test standards. Doing so typically adds weight, which reduces fuel economy, or cost, which lessens their competitiveness in the marketplace.
To earn a Top Safety Pick award, a new vehicle must earn ratings of Good in all IIHS crash tests, including, for 2020, the passenger-side small overlap front test (a new addition for 2020). The vehicle also needs to earn an Advanced or Superior rating for front crash prevention and a score of Acceptable or Good for its headlight performance and an Advanced or Superior rating for front crash prevention. The headlight rating can be achieved using optional lights, so some trims may earn a lower rating if equipped with other headlamps.
The Advanced or Superior ratings for front crash prevention ratings must be achieved in both vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-pedestrian evaluations. The systems enabling vehicles to meet the front crash test standards (which include features like forward collision warning or automatic emergency braking) may come standard or as optional equipment. Consumers looking to maximize front crash protection need to consider what’s standard and what is optional on any vehicle they’re looking at.
Top Safety Pick+ award winners have to ace all of the tests, with scores of Good across the board. This includes the difficult passenger-side small overlap front test. For 2020, a headlight score of Good or Acceptable must be found on all models of the vehicle – not as options or just on certain trim levels. TSP+ award winners also need a front crash prevention rating of Advanced or Superior in both vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-pedestrian scenarios.
In some cases, the IIHS’ top safety awards are only given to specific trim levels of a particular model. These trim levels typically have certain levels of advanced safety technology or headlights that meet performance standards. A vehicle's price has no bearing on its headlight performance, as many cars with the highest tech headlight designs perform poorly in the organization's evaluation. Likewise, a vehicle’s cost is not an indicator of how well it will perform on any crash test.
The IIHS evaluates vehicles based on the following tests.
Introduced in 2012, the driver’s side small overlap front crash test simulates the impact of a vehicle hitting a light pole or tree on the front left corner of the car. It is performed at 40 mph with a crash-test dummy in the driver’s seat. The collision strikes 25% of the frontal width of the vehicle.
Similar to the driver's side small overlap crash test, the passenger-side small overlap test simulates an impact on the front right corner of the vehicle. The IIHS introduced the analysis into their suite of evaluations in 2017. Two dummies are placed in the front seat of the car for this test.
In both the driver and passenger small overlap tests, sensors in the crash-test dummies tell researchers how likely it is that someone would be injured. Engineers also look at the car's structure to see if the impact caused intrusion into the passenger compartment. By watching the movement of the crash test dummies and the transfer of paint from them to the vehicle, testers can assess the effectiveness of the car's seat belts and airbags.
For the moderate overlap front crash test, the vehicle with a dummy in the driver’s seat is propelled at 40 mph toward a 2-foot tall aluminum barrier. It covers 40% of the vehicle’s front-end, with the vehicle striking the barrier on the driver’s side.
The test simulates a head-on collision between two vehicles that weigh approximately the same amount. It’s designed to assess the front crumple zones and the effectiveness of a vehicle's passenger compartment safety cage. IIHS studies have shown that a driver of a car that earns a rating of Good on the moderate overlap front crash test is 46% less likely to die than the driver of a vehicle with a mark of Poor.
The IIHS frontal crash tests differ significantly from the NHTSA NCAP frontal test, which entails the vehicle hitting a barrier that covers its full width at 35 mph.
The IIHS has been testing side impact collisions since 2003. In the evaluation, an SUV-shaped, 3,300-pound moving barrier strikes the side of the vehicle at 31 mph. A female-sized adult crash test dummy is placed in the front seat, and a child-sized dummy is placed in the back seat behind the driver.
The violent collision tests side impact structures as well as side airbags. The dummies are instrumented to determine the severity of head, neck, chest, abdomen, pelvis, and femur injuries a person would likely sustain in a side-impact collision.
Data from the IIHS demonstrates that a driver of a vehicle with a rating of Good has a 70% lower risk of death than one in a car with a grade of Poor.
The best rollover crash is one that never happens, and that’s the aim of NHTSA rollover resistance testing. The IIHS, on the other hand, tests the worst-case scenario – an actual rollover – by evaluating the strength of a vehicle’s roof. The stronger the roof, the less likely it will be crushed into the occupant compartment. Stronger roofs also help to prevent passengers from being ejected, as they’re more likely to help maintain the integrity of the vehicle’s glass and doors.
Testers determine roof strength by pressing an angled plate onto one edge of the roof. After this, they record the amount of pressure that is applied before the roof significantly deforms. By comparing the amount of pressure applied to the vehicle’s weight, they come up with a ratio that decides the vehicle’s score.
The IIHS’ two-part head restraint evaluation is intended to rate vehicles based on their effectiveness in preventing whiplash injuries. A static assessment looks at the geometry of the headrest in relation to where a human's head would be.
The dynamic test consists of a crash test dummy placed in a car seat, which is then moved on a sled to simulate a rear-end collision. Sensors capture data about the force applied to the neck and torso of the dummy, as well as the time it takes for the head to contact the restraint. A seat with a short duration to impact the restraint and low neck force will get a high rating.
The easiest crash to avoid is the one that never happens. That's the goal of accident prevention technologies such as forward collision warning and automatic emergency braking. While they might not prevent all collisions, they can reduce the severity of the impact in many cases.
IIHS testing takes a look at how well standard or available systems perform at both 12 and 25 mph. Points are scored by vehicles that either stop or significantly slow before the impact. A car that’s only equipped with forward collision warning automatically gets a rating of Basic. The best performing vehicles earn a grade of Superior. Those in the middle are rated Advanced.
Pedestrian crash prevention ratings come to the TSP and TSP+ programs for the first time in 2020. They consider scenarios where adults and children come into the path of the vehicle.
IIHS testing does not evaluate blind spot monitoring, lane-departure warning, adaptive cruise control, or lane-keeping assist systems.
One of the newest in the IIHS slate of tests is an evaluation of headlight performance. Headlights have become rather advanced, with LED, high-intensity discharge (HID), and curve-adaptive lights (lights that move in the direction you're turning) available on many vehicles. Despite these advances in technology, they have not necessarily become more effective than older halogen headlights.
The IIHS tests look at how both low- and high-beam headlights perform in a straight line and on curves. They also evaluate how much glare the lights create in the eyes of oncoming drivers. Their measurements are compared with what they consider to be ideal headlight illumination. Extra credit is given to vehicles with automatic high-beam headlights that activate when the road ahead is clear of other cars.
To get a Top Safety Pick, a car must have an Acceptable or Good headlight score on at least one version of the vehicle. In some cases, certain trim levels of the same vehicle will qualify because they have specific headlights, while others with different lights will not. For 2020, a Top Safety Pick+ requires a rating of Acceptable or Good on all models of the vehicle.
“The headlight ratings that have been part of our awards criteria in recent years have pushed automakers to pay more attention to this essential equipment,” says IIHS President David Harkey. “However, finding vehicles with the right headlights can be a challenge for consumers. We wanted to reward automakers that have removed this obstacle.”
The following vehicles have earned a 2020 IIHS Top Safety Pick+ Award. The IIHS uses different size categories than our new car rankings and reviews for their comparative tests. We’ve listed these vehicles in alphabetical order in each of their respective size categories.
This list is subject to change throughout the year as new vehicles are tested and automakers update their designs and resubmit their vehicles for testing.
Midsize Luxury Cars
2020 Mercedes-Benz C-Class sedan (models equipped with the optional front crash prevention systems)
Large Luxury Cars
2020 Genesis G70 (models built after December 2019)
2020 Mazda CX-5 (models equipped with the optional front crash protection systems)
Midsize Luxury SUVs
2020 Hyundai Nexo (limited geographic availability)
2020 Mercedes-Benz GLE (models built after July 2019 and equipped with the optional front crash protection systems)
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