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IIHS Says Small SUV Headlights Miss the Mark

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) measures headlight strength for 21 small SUVs. 

Those newfangled headlights touted by automakers on today’s small SUVs are missing the mark. The IIHS says in a news release that the headlights on a number of small SUVs are not providing enough illumination.

IIHS Illumination Evaluation: Small SUVs

The IIHS tested 21 small SUVs — compacts and subcompacts alike — and found that 12 models received its lowest Poor score. Five models received the second-lowest Marginal rating and only four models achieved the second-highest Acceptable rating. None of the SUVs tested received a top score of Good for headlight performance.

The IIHS began conducting a new series of illumination tests earlier this year, evaluating midsize sedans first. The SUV results were worse than what the IIHS discovered about midsize cars, confirming that government standards based on laboratory tests fail to accurately gauge performance in actual driving.

“Manufacturers aren’t paying enough attention to the actual on-road performance of this basic equipment,” says IIHS Senior Research Engineer Matthew Brumbelow. “We’re optimistic that improvements will come quickly now that we’ve given automakers something to strive for.”

Stand-Out Model: Mazda CX-3 Grand Touring

Not only did the IIHS test 21 small SUVs, it also evaluated every headlight option offered for each model line. For example, the IIHS found the best-performing headlights in the segment were offered on a new model, the 2016 Mazda CX-3, and only on the top Grand Touring trim. Those particular LED headlights are curve adaptive and come with optional high beam assist.

The tests were conducted at night on the IIHS’ Vehicle Research Center track in Virginia. A special device is used to measure how far light is projected as the vehicle is driven in a straight line, as well as around sharp and gradual curves in both left and right directions. The amount of glare oncoming drivers experience from the low beams is also measured. Any vehicle with excessive glare is penalized and can receive a score no higher than Marginal.

The Mazda CX-3 Grand Touring’s headlights performed well in the gradual and sharp right curves. They also performed fairly well on a sharp left curve and on a straightaway. The only demerit was on gradual left curves, where lighting was inadequate. The IIHS noted that the CX-3’s high beams “perform well on most approaches.”

Along with the Mazda CX-3, the Ford Escape, Honda CR-V, and Hyundai Tucson have headlights that received an Acceptable rating. Yet, none of the three are curve adaptive and only the Ford Escape includes high-beam assist. High-beam assist automatically switches between high and low beams as sensors detect if a vehicle is approaching in the opposite direction. The technology earns manufacturers a special nod from the IIHS when it comes to rating each vehicle.

Headlight Ratings for Small SUVs

The 2016 BMW X1, Mazda CX-5, Mitsubishi Outlander, Toyota RAV4 and Volkswagen Tiguan earned Marginal ratings for their headlights. The 12 models receiving Poor scores include the 2016 Audi Q3, Buick Encore, Chevrolet Trax, Fiat 500X, Honda HR-V, Jeep Patriot, Jeep Renegade, Jeep Wrangler, Mitsubishi Outlander Sport, Nissan Rogue, Subaru Forester and 2017 Kia Sportage.

Of the 12 SUVs with Poor ratings, the Honda HR-V had the worst performance. Moreover, Honda doesn’t offer a headlight upgrade, meaning the Poor score is apparent across all trim levels.

Customers shopping for a new car should be aware of the differences between headlight technologies. For instance, the Hyundai Tucson earned an Acceptable score, but only on the top-of-the-line Limited edition. However, Limited models with the optional curve adaptive headlights earned a Poor rating due to excessive glare. Additionally, the other three trims — SE, Eco and Sport — earned a Poor rating.

Brumbelow attributes glare issues to poorly aimed headlights. Because SUV headlights are mounted higher than cars, he says they should be aimed lower to prevent glare.

Making the Grade: Top Safety Pick+

Beginning in 2017, vehicles tested by the IIHS must garner Good or Acceptable headlight ratings to qualify for IIHS’ highest Top Safety Pick+ award. The illumination test is only one part of an assessment the IIHS performs to evaluate vehicle safety. Vehicles are also evaluated in five crashworthiness categories, as well as for the performance and availability of crash avoidance technologies.

Choosing Your Next Vehicle

What is the overarching reason for testing headlights? To reduce traffic deaths. Nearly half of all traffic deaths take place after dark or around dawn or dusk, so choosing a model equipped with the right technology may prove a wise safety move. However, the one significant downfall is that such technologies are typically found on more expensive trims, typically adding thousands of dollars to your purchase price.

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