Side Impact Crash Protection: The Safest SUVs and Crossovers in 2015

In the last few weeks I’ve been writing more than usual about the dangers of side impact collisions. First I wrote about the safest cars of 2015 based on an intrusion metric measured by the IIHS in their side impact collision tests, and then I followed up with an article on the safest minivans of 2015 for surviving t-bone collisions. Today’s article has to do with the safest SUVs and crossover in 2015 when it comes to surviving side impact collisions. I’ll likely follow it up in the near future with an article on the safest small (compact) and mini (subcompact) cars for surviving t-bones in 2015, as well as a series on the best cars, minivans, and SUVs or crossovers for surviving rollovers.

Side impact collisions are the collisions most likely to lead to fatalities, when compared to front and rear-impact collisions. These collisions are also commonly known as t-bones and broadside collisions since they frequently occur at intersections. However, they don’t just occur at normal breaks in the roadway, but can also occur when two vehicles are traveling in opposite directions and one loses control in a skid and winds up broadsided by the other after ending up in the opposing lane. They’re real and they’re deadly due to how little space there is for crash-absorbing structures beside us in vehicles compared to in front of and behind us.

I discuss these crashes fairly often on this blog, since a big part of what I focus on is how to avoid all kinds of crashes in the first place in order to create a safer driving community, both in the United States and abroad. This is an example of a fatal side impact collision from this year that involved an SUV t-boned by a car traveling at a high rate of speed. Everyone in both vehicles perished except for a child who was in a car seat, underscoring the importance of the use of well-fitting and well-designed car seats whenever traveling with children. Unfortunately, that child is today without a mother due to the negligence of other drivers. Since we can’t control how or what others drive, we need to look to other solutions to keep us safe.

I’ll review some material covered from the previous article on the safest family minivans, so if you’re simply interested in the vehicles themselves, skip down to the section with pictures.

How to stay alive in a side impact collision – the 3 biggest factors

Unfortunately, even though we live in a country where tens of thousands of people die each year due to car collisions in general and several thousand die each year due to side impact collisions in particular, we aren’t yet ready as a nation to put greater limits on how quickly others can drive, how large of vehicles they can drive, or how much others have to comply with drinking limits or traffic signs.

If anything, speed limits have consistently increased throughout the country while the most popular vehicle in the country continues to be a large pickup truck, the Ford F-150. People are also against the use of speed cameras and restrictions on auto use throughout the country, which suggests the problems we face will only continue to increase until gasoline is too expensive to make the widespread practices of excessive driving, speeding, and heavy vehicle purchasing practical.

Until and unless those societal changes come to pass, as I noted earlier, the three best ways to protect yourself and your loved ones from dying in t-bone collisions today are to either:

1.) Avoid driving (e.g., by using public transportation or by cycling or walking…eventually this leads to a critical mass where everyone is safer).

2.) Limit driving (by the same measures above and by combining trips).

3.) Drive the  most side-impact-resistant vehicles possible.

Ultimately, to truly bring an end to side impact collisions, as well as to all collisions, we’re going to need to be forced to invest in the first two measures. I’d consider self-driving or autonomous vehicles to be part of “avoiding driving,” even though those aren’t going to eliminate collisions completely until the vast majority of vehicles on the road are no longer being driven by humans (the critical mass argument). However, unless you’re in a position to completely follow step 1, you’ll need to focus on 2 and 3. Step 2 isn’t always feasible either, so this post focuses on Step 3, and is specifically related to choosing the safest SUVs and crossovers for side impacts currently available in the US in 2015. The equivalent article about the safest cars for side impacts in the US in 2015 is here while the equivalent article about the safest minivans for side impacts in the US in 2015 is here.

Calculating which SUVs and crossovers are the safest for side impact collisions by structural integrity (crush distance)

As in the car and minivan lists, the methodology here is based on the IIHS-measured crush distance in their side impact collision test, which involves a 3,300 SUV-like barrier rammed into the driver’s side of a vehicle at 31 mph. What’s simulated is 143.7KJ of kinetic energy, and a subsection of the IIHS test known as the “structure and safety cage” looks into how close the B-pillar intrudes into the center of the driver’s seat during the collision. Less intrusion is better.

The greater that crush space, given a vehicle’s overall “good” score for the side impact test and presence of airbags, the safer the vehicle.The threshold for a “good” subscore in the structural component of the side impact test is 12.5 cm of impact resistance, and for me, that’s where we’re just getting started. It’s possible to have an “acceptable” subscore or even a “marginal” one and still have an overall “good” score, but every component in a vehicle is either adding to or taking away from your safety, and I’m interested in looking behind the curtain, as it were.

Even though a vehicle might score “good” overall on the side impact test, would you rather sit in one with a 3 cm crush space or one with a 30 cm crush space?

That’s what this list is based on. Every cm between you and a life-ending amount of energy is a life-preserving cm of survival space. Let’s see who’s doing the best job at it right now.

I looked through every SUV for which data was available regarding side impact intrusion levels from the IIHS to come up with a best-of list. It’s worth noting that the IIHS continually updates their side impact information while gathering additional information, so in a few months, it’s likely that these numbers may be slightly different. All data is accurate as of Friday, September 18th, 2015, and all images are courtesy of Wikipedia.

The 12 safest SUVs and crossovers for side impact collisions in 2015


v09560P00126 cm – 2016 Volvo XC90.

The current generation Volvo XC90 is the safest SUV or crossover you can buy today in the US when it comes to side impact crash protection, based on its 26 cm of crush protection. As of this writing, no other SUV or crossover does a better job, and to be even more direct, no other vehicle does any better, out of all cars, minivans and SUVs currently on the market. In other words, when it comes to side impact protection, Volvo sets the benchmark for every other vehicle to aspire to at this time. To put it in yet another way, if a Ford Escape (see below) crashed into you at 31 mph while you were driving an XC90, there’d be nearly a full foot of space between the center of your seat and the crushed B-pillar after the collision.

That’s impressive.

The original XC90 was an impressive vehicle, but it wouldn’t have made this list, as its intrusion-resistance score was 9 cm. That said, interestingly, the original XC90, which was recently on the zero driver death rate list for the ’08-’11 model years, featured a lower HIC-15 impact score (where lower is better) at 61 than the current XC90 at 233. To put it simply, this is a measure of the force the crash test dummy experienced during the side impact collision. Zero is best, while a score around 615 is the threshold for a significant risk of brain damage. The old XC90, new XC90, and all of the other SUVs on this list scored in the safe range, but naturally, the lower the score, the better.

I look forward to seeing how the new XC90 performs in the ultimate measure of driver safety–the next set of driver death rate results a few years from now.

My full 3 across car seat guide to the XC90 is available here.

x5 - publicdomain - 201425 cm – 2014-2015 BMW X5.

Immediately after the XC90 comes the BMW X5 with a stellar intrusion-resistance score of 25 cm. Given BMW’s history of attention to safety, this isn’t surprising, but it’s still impressive.

It’s worth noting that the previous generation of the X5 would have made this top side impact-resistance list as well, clocking in with 19.5 cm of crush protection at the B-pillar. However, that X5, specifically the ’08-’11 4WD edition, had a surprisingly high driver death rate of 14, suggesting, of course, that there’s more to survival than mitigating side impact intrusion. It’s also worth noting that as of today, the X5 has still never received a roof strength score from the IIHS, and that whenever driver death rate information is released involving the X5, at least half of the deaths tend to be due to rollovers in single-vehicle collisions. I’ll have a followup article soon detailing the safest vehicles for surviving rollovers, and it’s safe to say that the X5 will not be on that list.

My full 3 across car seat guide to the X5 is available here.

glk - 2013 - publicdomain24 cm – 2011-2015 Mercedes-Benz GLK (e.g., GLK 350).

Hot on the heels of the X5 is the GLK crossover by MB with a highly impressive intrusion score of 24 cm, equaling that of Mercedes-Benz’s E-Class sedan. Given MB’s history of developing safe vehicles, this isn’t much of a surprise. What’s more of a surprise is the fact that the GLK crossover design is at least 4 years old in this generation, meaning it has been providing an exceptional amount of safety for years that other vehicles are just beginning to approach, never mind exceed.I  look forward to seeing the GLK show up on a driver death rate study; MB will need to sell more of them for it to make an appearance.

My full 3 across car seat guide to the GLK is available here.

explorer - 2011 - publicdomain23.5 cm – 2011-2015 Ford Explorer.

The Ford Explorer marks the first US-branded SUV on the list, and provides an impressive 23.5 cm of side intrusion protection. The current generation Explorer, however, continues to be dogged by a relatively poor small overlap score, only achieving a “marginal” rating by the IIHS in that area despite strong scores in all other areas. The side impact intrusion figure, however, is a great step forward over the previous generation, which only offered a paltry 4.5 cm of protection.

As with the GLK, I look forward to seeing the Explorer show up on a driver death rate study; I am sure Ford won’t have trouble selling this generation, especially given how much of an improvement it is over previous ones.

My full 3 across car seat guide to the Explorer is available here.

q5 - 2009 - publicdomain23 cm – 2009-2015 Audi Q5.

Audi makes their first and only appearance on the list with the Q5, which holds the impressive distinction of being the oldest model to make the top list with a design dating back to 2009.  The 2015 edition was also updated with a reinforced front-end to result in a good small overlap score. I look forward to seeing the Q5 show up on a driver death rate study; Audi will need to sell more of them for it to make an appearance. However, given their position in the market as an alternative to MB and BMW, I doubt they’ll lose sleep wondering if they sell enough Q5s to show up in death rate studies, although the A4 and A6 pop up (and do very well) from time to time.

My full 3 across car seat guide to the Q5 is available here.

xc60 - public domain - flickr22 cm – 2010-2015 Volvo XC60.

Volvo makes their second appearance on any of the intrusion-resistant lists I’ve written so far with the XC60. It’s the third vehicle on this list to feature a good small overlap score after the XC90 and Q5 above, and is reflective of Volvo’s attention to detail with their flagship SUV. As with the Q5, I look forward to seeing the XC60 show up on a driver death rate study; Volvo will need to sell more of them for it to make an appearance. Given the appearance of the XC90 in the two most recent studies, I’m hopeful this means Volvo’s US car sales are on the upswing. Along with BMW, Mercedes, Subaru, and Audi, Volvo puts an awful lot of their research and development into safety technologies these days.

My full 3 across car seat guide to the XC60 is available here.

edge - 2015 - publicdomain20 cm – 2015 Ford Edge.

The first brand new model of the list is the second entry by Ford, the Edge. Improving greatly upon the 9.0 cm of intrusion resistance of the previous generation of the Edge, the new Edge now boasts an impressive 20 cm of intrusion resistance.

The previous generation of the Edge (’07-’11) is also notable for containing the first US vehicle to make the zero list of driver deaths in the case of the ’07 4WD, although this would not stay the case. Strangely, the 4WD Edge would then go on to have a DDR of 41 in the ’08-’11 model years while the 2WD improved from its previous DDR of 20 to 14 in the ’08-’11 model years. I still have no idea why this occurred, and can only chalk it up to chance, which should always be kept in mind when reading the driver death rate lists, for good or for bad.

Interestingly, while the Ford Edge was originally a structural twin of the Lincoln MKX, the MKX was not restyled for the 2015 model year while the Edge was. As a result, the 20 cm of intrusion resistance in the 2015 Edge is not shared by the MKX, which remains the same as the ’07-’14 Edge / MKX.

My full 3 across car seat guide to the Edge is available here.

escape - 2013 - publicdomain19.5 cm – 2013-2015 Ford Escape.

The third Ford entry on the list is also the first small SUV / crossover on the list, the Escape, with an impressive 19.5 cm of intrusion protection. Proving you don’t have to be a mid-sized SUV to offer a stellar amount of side-impact resistance, the current generation Escape is a dramatic improvement over the previous, which only offered 5.5-7.5 cm of intrusion protection. Unfortunately, the current generation Escape continues to be plagued by a “poor” small overlap score that Ford will need to pay attention to in order to make this SUV shine among the best in its class.

My full 3 across car seat guide to the Escape is available here.

m-class - 2012 - publicdomain19-20 cm – 2012-2015 Mercedes-Benz M-Class (e.g., ML 550).

Mercedes-Benz’ second entry on this list is the long-impressive M-Class SUV, which was tested twice by MB and yielded scores between 19 and 20 cm in side impact intrusion resistance. The M-Class is only the third SUV on this list to also feature a good small overlap score, along with the Q5 and XC60.

The previous generation of the M-Class had a very impressive driver death rate of 3 in the ’08-’11 4WD model years in the most recent study, which is almost as good as it gets. That model scored 15 cm on this measure, which would have kept it out of this top list, but which also indicates that it’s possible to have a very safe vehicle even if it doesn’t lead the list in side impact resistance.

My full 3 across car seat guide to the M-Class is available here.

highlander - 2014 - publicdomain18.5 cm – 2014-2015 Toyota Highlander.

The current generation Highlander follows what was already a very impressive previous generation in terms of side impact resistance. In fact, the previous ’08-’13 generation featured 17 cm of side impact intrusion resistance, the second highest figure of any vehicle on this list with a previous generation available for comparison. In fact, the hybrid 4WD ’08-’11 Highlander was one of the SUVs on the zero list in the most recent driver death rate study.

The regular 2WD Highlander scored a DDR of 7 while the regular 4WD scored a DDR of 14. All of those are good scores, by the way, but the goal is zero deaths, and the hybrid Highlander, or Hi-Hi, as they’re often known on online forums, got it. Furthermore, the current generation from ’13 onward now has an “acceptable” small overlap score. It’s worth noting, however, that the hybrid Highlander achieved its zero rating without that score.

My full 3 across car seat guide to the Highlander is available here.

jgc - 2011 - publicdomain18.5 cm – 2011-2015 Jeep Grand Cherokee

Tied with the Highlander is the current generation Jeep Grand Cherokee, representing the 4th US vehicle (after the Explorer, Edge, and Escape) on the top list. Closely related to the M-Class in its underbody, the Grand Cherokee is significantly cheaper and a significant step forward compared to previous iterations of the Grand Cherokee. This was reflected in its impressive driver death rate of 7 in the most recent study. The influence of MB is clear when one considers the fact that the previous generation of the JGC had an abysmal side protection figure of 2.5 cm.

Unfortunately, the JGC is still flagged by a “marginal” small overlap score for the ’13 model year and up, and this is an area Jeep will want to address to help bring this SUV to its full potential.

My full 3 across car seat guide to the JGC is available here.

cx-5 - 2013 - publicdomain18.5 cm  – 2013-2016 Mazda CX-5.

Rounding out the list is the current generation Mazda CX-5, which is also tied for 9th position with the Highlander and Grand Cherokee. The CX-5 is particularly impressive as the only other small SUV / crossover on the best-of-the-best list aside from the Ford Escape. Furthermore, unlike the Escape, it has a “good” small overlap score, and has had one since the ’14 model year. In fact, of the 11 SUVs on this list, fewer than half (4) including the CX-5, Q5, XC60, and M-Class feature good small overlap scores at this time. That’s an article waiting to be written on another day, of course, regarding the best vehicles for surviving small overlap collisions.

As with several other vehicles on this list, I look forward to seeing the CX-5 show up on a driver death rate study; Mazda will need to sell more of them for it to make an appearance.

My full 3 across car seat guide to the CX-5 is available here.

More broadly, the presence of multiple Fords, Volvos, and Mercedes-Benz models in the top 12 list of intrusion-resistance SUVs and crossovers is clear evidence of the current commitment to safety in these companies, and will surely bring good feelings to anyone buying a recent model-year vehicle from either of those brands. I wrote this about Mercedes-Benz, Subaru, and Chrysler in the equivalent list about cars, and have to say that I’m pleasantly surprised to see a range of auto-makers stepping up to the plate in designing safe vehicles across their fleets.

How to choose an SUV or crossover to keep you safe in side impact crashes

In conclusion, there are an awful lot of strong candidates right now in the US SUV and crossover market when it comes to side impact protection. I cut the list off where I did because there were so many contenders that it would have gone on for much longer, and my goal was simply to show the best of the best.

There are a number of other great vehicles that I didn’t include on the list to save time that were literally only a centimeter or two away from appearing on the list. Other strong contenders include the 2013-2015 BMW X1 at 18 cm, the 2015 Lincoln MKC at 18 cm, the 2014-2015 Jeep Cherokee at 17.5 cm, and the 2007-2015 GMC Acadia, Chevrolet Traverse, Buick Enclave, and Saturn Outlook at 17.5 cm.

The takeaway message here is the same as it was in the other lists: it’s worth looking beyond the overall “good” score and diving into the structural integrity subscore when searching for safe cars for this particular kind of crash. Of course, you’ll start with looking for airbags and the overall “good” score, but beyond that, if you’re choosing between two vehicles that seem good on paper, dive into this subscore and you might be surprised at what you find. And remember that just because an SUV isn’t anywhere near the top numbers on this list doesn’t mean it’s not safe. There are several SUVs that showed up on the most recent zero list that didn’t show up on this list, including the previous generation Kia Sorento, which had an intrusion score of 8.5 cm, the previous generation Lexus RX 350 , which had a score of 17.5 cm, and the previous generation Volvo XC90, which had a score of 9.5 cm. No drivers died in any of these three SUVs in the last driver death rate study, but none of them were even close to this list (with the exception of the RX) in that intrusion figure. There were also two SUVs on the zero list (i.e., the Toyota Sequoia and Mercedes-Benz GL-Class) that didn’t show up here simply because I don’t yet have access to their intrusion resistance figures.

We can’t control everything. The safest option is still not driving at all, followed by driving as little as possible. But if you’ve got to drive, drive safely, and do your best to choose a safe vehicle. To that end, my safe family vehicle analyses for cars and SUVs are worth reading.

I loved writing this article, and I hope you enjoyed reading it. I look forward to writing more articles examining various factors in car safety design and how they relate to keeping you and your loved ones safer while on the road. Stay tuned, remember to avoid common mistakes parents make with car seats, and check out some 3 across car seat guides while you’re here.

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