The looks of a car model vary, sometimes slightly and sometimes significantly, between trims. A lot of that variance comes in terms of interior features, screens, and trims. But a major difference, in terms of the safety of the prospective car buyer and everyone else, is something most buyers wouldn’t notice at the dealership or in a daytime test drive: headlights.
Again and again, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety releases safety ratings (often championed by the car companies themselves) for new cars, often with one main condition: That people have to pay up for the good headlights. If they don’t, they risk buying vehicles with IIHS’ lowest-rated headlights and ending up on dark roads with inadequate vision—likely without even knowing it at the time of the purchase.
We saw it on the 2018 Hyundai Kona. We saw it on the 2019 Volkswagen GTI. We saw it on the BMW X5, which has LEDs on both its headlights that earned IIHS’ lowest rating, “poor,” and its highest, “good.” We even saw it on the 2019 Kia Stinger, which starts around $33,000. Now, we’re seeing it on the 2020 Kia Soul.
IIHS announced the Soul’s new ratings and receipt of its highest safety award on Tuesday, with that ever-famous disclaimer: “when equipped with optional front crash prevention and specific headlights.” That’s because the two most expensive trims of the new Soul, the $24,190 EX Designer Collection and the $27,490 turbocharged GT Line, have LED headlights with “good” ratings. The lower S, GT Line, EX, X Line and LX trims have various halogen headlights all got “poor” ratings from IIHS. There is no middle ground on the Soul.
The reasons for the poor headlight ratings vary slightly from option to option, but they can all be found here.
This trend of better headlights for better trims isn’t new. IIHS documented it in the context of a model year, and found that the only models it tested in 2018 with “good” headlights on every trim were the Genesis G90 and Lexus NX SUV. The NX started around $35,000 at the time, and the G90 at just under $70,000.
The trend is also, arguably, right in line with new safety and crash-avoidance technology: The more people pay for a new car, the more features they get. But headlights aren’t a little signal in a car’s mirror that there’s something in the next lane, or a beep to warn a driver that they might be getting too close to an object. They’re a necessary element of night driving, and trim choice shouldn’t decide whether someone gets to illuminate the road safely enough or not.
Mazda’s also proven that the debate can’t fall back on better headlights costing drastically more, as the Mazda 3’s headlight ratings glow about as much as the lights themselves. Every trim of the 2019 car had “acceptable” LED headlights, which is IIHS’ step below “good,” and it starts at just $21,000—low, for a new car in America.
Headlights are basic safety, and it’s been shown, at least on the Mazda 3, that decent ones are achievable on lower, more inexpensive trims. So, the question becomes: Why aren’t safe headlights universally standard features by now?