Modern cars perform far better in crash tests than their predecessors of decades past — we know this. But it’s far more illuminating to watch those old cars fail at fairly standard tests that most vehicles excel at today.
This YouTube video of a Dateline segment from 1995 appeared on the RADwood Facebook page, and it’s sent me down a rabbit hole of watching old crash tests that has pretty much derailed what remains of my day. It shows Insurance Institute for Highway Safety tests of a number of compacts from the time — you know, the sort of cars almost no one sells in this country anymore — and they all received “Poor” to “Acceptable” ratings.
Not one of these small cars performed well enough to earn the IIHS’ highest “Good” rating. The Kia Sephia in particular, which appears right at the video’s 10-minute mark, was so useless in restraining the dummy’s movements and preventing intrusion into the cabin that it was singled out as far worse than even the other “Poor” contenders.
The IIHS’s YouTube page actually has quite a deep library of crash tests of old vehicles, including one of a Kia Sephia from 1999 — four years later than the one featured in the Dateline episode. It seems like slight improvements may have been made in those intervening years, but the result was still deemed poor.
We can look further beyond compacts, too. Here’s the overlap performance of a 1996 Chevrolet Astro van. It literally buckles right behind the frontal area of the cabin.
Here’s a 1998 Jeep Wrangler deemed “Acceptable.”
And here’s a 1998 Volkswagen Passat. To me, it seems like the sedan didn’t fare well based on the squeezing and deformation of the front of the roof, as the area right above the windshield shoots up into a wedge. But apparently it was strong enough for a “Good” grade.
Finally, here’s a modern Jetta for reference, just to emphasize how far we’ve come. The roofline doesn’t give an inch.
Ironically, that Dateline segment is mostly centered around controversy at the time that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration wasn’t conducting any overlap tests — crashes where the left or right side of the front of a car strikes a protruding object, or an oncoming car at an off-center angle.
It’s been 25 years since that episode aired and the NHTSA still doesn’t perform the offset tests that the IIHS does. All the while, the administration has been repeatedly promising an updated criteria that has yet to come. Thankfully, cars are still much safer today despite the government’s negligence.