In New Safety Tests, Plug-in Hybrids Beat Electric Cars

By · February 01, 2017

The 2017 Chevrolet Volt and Toyota Prius Prime, both plug-in hybrids, were awarded “Top Safety Pick+” awards from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS). However, the IIHS today announced that two leading pure electric cars—the Tesla Model S and BMW i3—fell short of the highest safety awards.

“There’s no reason the most efficient vehicles can't also be among the safest,” said David Zuby, IIHS executive vice-president. “We hope Tesla and BMW will continue to refine the designs of their electric models to maximize driver protection and, especially in the case of Tesla, improve their headlights.”

To qualify for Top Safety Pick, a vehicle must earn good ratings in all five crashworthiness evaluations—small overlap front, moderate overlap front, side, roof strength and head restraints—and have an available front crash prevention system that earns an advanced or superior rating. The “plus” is given to vehicles that meet all those criteria and also have good or acceptable headlights.

The Model S earned good ratings in all IIHS crashworthiness evaluations—except for the “acceptable” rating in the small overlap front crash test. The Tesla Model S ran into a problem when the safety belt allowed the dummy's torso to move too far forward in the small overlap test. The dummy's head hit the steering wheel hard through the airbag.

Tesla says it made a production change on Jan. 23 to address the problem. IIHS said it will test the updated vehicle for small overlap protection as soon as the revised vehicle can be delivered. Tesla also indicated that it’s working to improve its headlights, which were given a poor rating for all 2017 Tesla Model S versions.

The small all-electric BMW i3 fell short based on an “acceptable” rating in the head restraint and seat evaluation. That test measures a vehicle’s ability to protect against neck injuries in a rear crash. The i3 earned good ratings in the other crashworthiness tests and is available with an optional front crash prevention system that earned an advanced rating. The i3’s only available headlight system earned an acceptable rating.

“BMW clearly thought a lot about safety when designing the i3,” Zuby said. “It's a shame that it missed the mark on head restraints, which is something most of today's vehicles get right.”

The 2017 Volt earned a good rating for headlights when equipped with optional high-beam assist, which automatically switches between high beams and low beams based on the presence of other vehicles. But without high-beam assist, the Volt’s headlights were given an “acceptable” rating.

The Prius Prime plug-in hybrid was also a Top Safety Pick+. Its standard front crash prevention system earns a superior rating. The Prime’s only available headlights earn an acceptable rating.

The 2017 Volt can travel 53 miles in electric-only mode, while the Prius Prime can go 25 miles without using gas—but after those all-electric miles, the Prius is more efficient with a 54-mpg rating compared to the Volts 42 miles per gallon efficiency.

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