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Side Impact Safety: Volkswagen Atlas Safest SUV of 2018

The 2018 Volkswagen Atlas might be the safest SUV ever made (to date) if you want to survive getting t-boned.
The 2018 Volkswagen Atlas might be the safest SUV ever made (to date) if you want to survive getting t-boned.

Side impact safety is one of those elements of car safety that you have relatively little control over. Yes, you can avoid roads with the potential for high-speed t-bones, but aside from reducing the number of annual miles you put on your vehicle (the single most effective driving strategy you can master), the design of your vehicle is probably one of the best areas you can invest in for reducing your risk of this kind of crash. So what’s a good vehicle to be in if a side impact is imminent?

Last month, I wrote about how the 2018 Honda Odyssey had regained the title of the safest minivan to be in when it came to surviving a side impact. I’ve got plenty of articles here on previous rankings for SUVs, minivans, and cars of various sizes. Today we’re going to revisit rankings for 2017-2018 model year SUVs, and as a spoiler, a $30,000 7-seater–the Volkswagen Atlas–is at the top of the heap.

How structural integrity (crush distance) serves as a proxy for side impact resistance

This is the 2018 Atlas after being hit by a deformable barrier in the NHTSA's side impact crash test, but the general principles are the same.
This is the 2018 Atlas after being hit by a deformable barrier in the NHTSA’s side impact crash test, but the general principles are the same.

The IIHS’ side impact test resembles the NHTSA’s test, which is based on the NCAP test used around the world. Essentially, the IIHS rams a 3,300 barrier (it represents an SUV of equivalent height, size, and mass, such as a Honda CR-V) into the side of a vehicle at 31 mph, which delivers, per kinetic energy calculators, 143.7 kilojoules of energy. Every vehicle bends somewhat due to such an impact at the B-pillar (the pillar between the front and back doors), and an IIHS sub-score called the “structure and safety cage” tells us how much the B-pillar bent into the center of the driver’s seat at the peak of the collision. The less deformation as measured by increased distance between the driver’s seat center and the B-pillar, the better. It’s kind of like measuring how close you came to being hit in the head by your child swinging a tennis racket, except the racket is a vehicle being driven into your car. We’ll use this metric to rank the top SUVs on the market.

I researched the test scores of every SUV currently available in the US to curate this list, and it’s accurate as of November 2017, with images sourced from the CCD, Wikipedia, or the NHTSA. The 2017 list of safest SUVs and crossovers for side impact survival is here.

The Six Safest SUVs for Surviving Side Impact Collisions in 2018

32 cm – 2018 Volkswagen Atlas.

The newly released Volkswagen Atlas is an impressive engineering feat. Designed as a larger, more American-sized version of the Touareg (which has since been discontinued for the US market), the Atlas competes with a range of mid-priced family 3-row SUVs like the Honda Pilot, Toyota Highlander or Sequoia, Chevy Tahoe or Traverse, Ford Explorer, and Dodge Durango, but beats all of them along with a range of luxury 3-row SUVs like the Audi Q7 and Volvo XC90 with a never-before-seen 32 cm of side impact resistance. That’s more than a full foot of protection relative to the center of the driver’s seat.

Imagine someone driving a Honda CR-V or Ford Escape at you at your driver’s door at 31 mph and having it bounce away from you while leaving a foot of space between it and the center of your seat. That is nothing short of amazing. Volkswagen has done some very naughty things in recent years, but presuming these results are real, they’re setting the standard for everyone else to follow, and the Atlas is a fine mapmaker in that regard. No other car, minivan, SUV, or pickup truck exceeds it (so far).

My list of infant, convertible, and booster seats that will fit 3 across in the Atlas is available here.

27.5 cm – 2017-2018 Audi Q7.

Almost 6 cm behind the Atlas, but still ahead of every other vehicle beside it, comes a stablemate of the Atlas–the Audi Q7. Given that Audi is a subsidiary of VW the way Lexus belongs to Toyota, it’s a testament again to Volkswagen’s engineering to find both the number one and two spots occupied by their SUVs. The Q7 was the safest SUV for side impacts just one year ago when I last compiled this list. It’s likely going to remain on these lists for at least another decade; very few manufacturers are building cars this strong.

My list of infant, convertible, and booster seats that will fit 3 across in the Q7 is available here.

26 cm – 2016-2018 Volvo XC90.

The XC90, which was the leading SUV two short years ago in side impact protection, has fallen to third place, but remains one of the best vehicles to be in during an imminent side impact collision. It’s worth noting that Volvo has yet to address its “acceptable” torso sub-score; that said, the overall strong performance of the XC90 makes up for this shortcoming. The XC90 in its second generation represents a huge step forward from the 9.5 cm of protection offered in the original XC90. That said, it’s important to remember that 9.5 cm was still enough to place the original XC90 and a number of other vehicles mentioned at the end of the article on various IIHS zero driver death rate lists.

My list of infant, convertible, and booster seats that will fit 3 across in the XC90 is available here.

26 cm – 2018 Volvo XC60.

The original XC60 was one of the best SUVs for surviving side impact crashes since its 2010 inception, rounding out the top 6 a full 5 years later in 2015 with its 22 cm of side intrusion protection. Even in 2017, when I last made this list, it rounded up the top 7 SUVs, a full 7 years after its release. That’s good design. The second generation has taken several cm steps forward and is tied for third place with its larger stablemate, the XC90. It is likely to continue to make the top 10 list for another several years into the future.

My list of infant, convertible, and booster seats that will fit 3 across in the XC60 is available here.

25 cm – 2018 Volkswagen Tiguan.

The second generation Tiguan  represents the 3rd and final VW/ Audi superstar on the list. With 25 cm of intrusion protection, it’s another strong showing from the biggest automaker on the planet. It’s worth noting that the Tiguan, having grown significantly in size, is no longer classified by the IIHS as a small SUV, but as a mid-sized SUV.

My list of infant, convertible, and booster seats that will fit 3 across in the Tiguan is available here.

25 cm – 2014-2018 BMW X5.

Rounding up the list and tied with the new Tiguan is the third generation F15 BMW X5. The oldest vehicle on the list, it’s yet another example of the durability of good engineering, at least when it comes to side impact safety. As the X5 is nearing the end of its generation, we’ll have to see if the next gen exceeds it in side impact protection and secures a higher position on next year’s list.

My list of infant, convertible, and booster seats that will fit 3 across in the X5 is available here.

What if I can’t afford (or don’t want to buy) any of these SUVs?

If all of these SUVs are either out of budget or not your cup of tea, never fear. There are a great many others that offered excellent performance but fell just behind the cutoff level I established at 25 cm. For example, the 2016-2018 Mercedes-Benz GLC and the 2011-2015 Mercedes-Benz GLK (which MB would rename a year later as the GLC) are both right on the heels of the X5 and Tiguan at 24 cm. The 2016-2018 Lexus RX is right there with them at 24 cm. Just behind them we find the 2009-2017 Audi Q5, which had 23 cm of protection in an era when most vehicles didn’t offer more than 12 cm.

More broadly, remember that what you’re driving isn’t what primarily determines your family’s safety–not even in side impact collisions. What primarily impacts your safety and that of your loved ones is the degree to which you remember to choose safe speeds, follow best practices with car seats,  and choose safe roads. If you do so, you’ll have much better odds of avoiding and surviving side, frontal, or rear crashes than anyone driving any of the vehicles above, even if you’re in something with only a few cm of side impact protection. Remember that the 2008 Toyota Sienna, the first minivan to appear on an IIHS zero death list 10 model years ago (Status Report Vol. 46, No. 5), had a whopping 8.5-9.5 cm of side intrusion protection. The 2007 Ford Edge, the first family mid-sized SUV to make the zero list, had 9 cm of side impact protection. And the aforementioned original XC90 also came in at 9.5 cm of side impact protection, which, as noted earlier, also landed it on a zero list (Status Report Vol. 50, No. 1).

It’s not the vehicle that makes the difference; it’s how and where you drive it.

If you find the information on car safety, recommended car seats, and car seat reviews on this car seat blog helpful, you can shop through this Amazon link for any purchases, car seat-related or not. Canadians can shop through this link for Canadian purchases.

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Side Impact Safety: Honda Odyssey Safest Minivan Again in 2018

The 2018 Odyssey is the safest minivan ever made (so far) when it comes to side impact crash resistance.
The 2018 Odyssey is the safest minivan ever made (so far) when it comes to side impact crash resistance.

I’ve written endlessly about side impact collisions and how dangerous they can be for all of us who travel in passenger-sized vehicles. They are overrepresented in fatal crash scenarios, and have been so for years in every country with modern infrastructure. As illustrated in an earlier post on fatality rates in side impact collisions, even though only 21% of all collisions feature side impacts, 34% of fatal multiple-vehicle collisions involve side impacts, compared to frontal impacts, which make up 52% of all collisions and 56% of fatal multi-vehicle collisions, and rear impacts, which make up 28% of all collisions and only 8% of fatal multiple-vehicle crashes. To put it simply, despite side impacts being the least common type of crash, they’re proportionally the most likely to be deadly. So what can we do about them?

Which factors affect your odds of dying in a side impact collision?

No matter where you live, there are three primary factors in auto safety: how you drive, what you drive, and where you drive. You can reduce your odds of dying in a side impact collision by increasing your driving safety–e.g., avoiding driving entirely, limiting annual miles driven, following the speed limit, and so on. You can also improve your odds of survival by monitoring where you drive–e.g., on divided vs. undivided roads, or in areas with lower speed limits, speed and traffic cameras, and forgiving roads. However, today we’ll look at how to increase your odds of avoiding and surviving side impact crashes by changing what you drive–specifically by choosing the minivans with the greatest levels of side impact resistance available in 2018.

Structural integrity (crush distance) as a metric for side impact resistance

This is the 2018 Odyssey after an NHTSA crash test, but the principles behind the test are similar to that of the IIHS.
This is the 2018 Odyssey after an NHTSA crash test, but the principles behind the test are similar to that of the IIHS.

I’ve written about the IIHS’ side impact test in detail in previous posts on surviving side impact crashes in cars, minivans, and SUVs, but here’s the short version: the IIHS has a side impact test that involves ramming a 3,300 lb barrier (with the same height and size profile of an equivalent-weight SUV) into a vehicle’s side at 31 mph, delivering 143.7KJ of kinetic energy. This deforms every vehicle to some degree at the B-pillar, and the IIHS’ subscore called the “structure and safety cage” measures how deeply the B-pillar intrudes into the center of the driver’s seat during the collision. The less it does, as reflected by increased distance between the B-pillar and the center of the driver’s seat, the better. We’ll use this metric to rank the minivans on the market.

I combed through test scores of every minivan currently sold in the US to make this list, and it’s accurate as of mid October 2017, with images sourced from yours truly, Wikipedia, or the NHTSA. The 2016 minivan side impact review is here.

The 5 safest minivans for surviving side impact collisions in 2018

21.5 cm – 2018 Honda Odyssey.

The newest version of the Honda Odyssey looks, feels, and drives very similarly to the prior generation; it speaks to the strong foundation established in the model that preceded it. The most significant change in side impact protection is a slight increase in door and frame strength leading to a B-pillar distance of 21.5 cm from the center of the driver’s seat.

19.5 cm – 2017 Chrysler Pacifica.

2017-pacifica-selfThe last time I wrote a side impact comparison of minivans available in the US and Canadian market, the Chrysler Pacifica had just come onto the scene and pushed the Odyssey out of first place for the first time since 2010, when the Sienna led with 8.5 cm. Chrysler brought their A-game to the Pacifica, and I was happy to see a significant challenger to the Odyssey’s 6-year reign from 2011-2016. However, with the new Odyssey, the Pacifica has slipped into second place, which is still very respectable. The difference between it and the first place ’18 Odyssey is a scant 2 cm.

18.5 cm – 2011-2017 Honda Odyssey.

odyssey-2011-publicdomainIf the Pacifica receives credit for coming in only 2 cm behind the current Odyssey, the previous Odyssey deserves heaps of credit for having a 6-year old design (dating back to 2011) that falls only 1 cm short of a minivan more than half a decade newer (the current Pacifica) and 3 cm short of the current leader, which is the current Odyssey. The 2011+ Odyssey currently represents the sweet spot for side impact safety among used minivans, and its value is hard to beat. This van also had a driver death rate of 8 for the ’11-’14 model years per the most recent IIHS survey.

14.5 cm – 2015-2017 Kia Sedona.

sedona - 2015 - publicdomainThe Sedona is several cm behind the previous gen Odyssey and even farther behind the current Odyssey, but it still provides a solid 14.5 cm of side impact resistance at the B-pillar. Not enough have been sold to show up in any IIHS driver death rate surveys, but the previous generation Sedona was one of the best performing minivans of its generation, and it’s likely that the current generation Sedona will rank as well as the perennial chart-toppers, the Sienna and the Odyssey, once it sells enough models in the current generation.

14-15.5 cm – 2011-2017 Toyota Sienna.

sienna--publicdomainFinally, the Sienna rounds up the list of recent-model year minivans worth purchasing for side impact safety. At 14 cm of side impact resistance, it slots right behind the Sedona. A different test by Toyota gave it 15.5 cm, but I always rank via the lower score, as it’s the more conservative value. It’s worth keeping in mind that although the Sienna has less side impact resistance on paper than the equivalent 2011-2017 Odyssey, both vehicles have statistically identical driver death rates per the most recent IIHS driver death rate, showing again that how and where vehicles are driven has far more of an effect on driver safety than what vehicles are driven, even though both vehicles are nearly identical in on-paper safety to begin with.

What about the Quest, Town & Country, and Grand Caravan?

There are several minivans that didn’t make the list because they’re so far behind the aforementioned minivans that I wouldn’t consider them if I had the choice. The Quest, Town & Country, and Grand Caravan continue to come in last position, just as they did when I last wrote this article. The Pacifica clearly shows  Fiat Chrysler America can make a class-leading minivan when they decide to; they have not yet decided to with either the T&C or with the GC, both of which don’t score any better in side impact resistance in 2017 than the 2006 Toyota Sienna made *11*  years earlier.

What if I can’t afford any of these vans?

Remember that no matter what you’re driving, and whether your van appears on this list or not, the majority of your family’s safety won’t depend in majority on your minivan (or SUV, or car, or pickup truck). It will depend on the degree to which you consistently choose safe speeds, follow best practices with car seats,  and choose safe roads. These are the factors that have the greatest impact on whether you can avoid and survive car crashes, no matter whether you’re in a 2018 Odyssey, a 2006 Sienna, or anything in between.

If you find the information on car safety, recommended car seats, and car seat reviews on this car seat blog helpful, you can shop through this Amazon link for any purchases, car seat-related or not. Canadians can shop through this link for Canadian purchases.

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