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IIHS Reveals Bad News for Midsize SUV Headlights

IIHS Reveals Bad News for Midsize SUV Headlights

By Joseph Dobrian, June 14, 2017
The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) has released new headlight ratings for midsize SUVs, revealing that many such vehicles receive “Marginal” or “Poor” ratings for headlight performance. Among the 19 midsize SUVs and 18 midsize luxury SUVs evaluated by the Institute, only the 2017 Hyundai Santa Fe and the 2017 Volvo XC60 are available with “Good”-rated headlights. One of the worst-performing sets of headlights belongs to the Kia Sorento. On the right side of a straightaway, the Sorento’s low beams only illuminate 148 feet, compared with 315 feet for the Volvo XC60’s low beams.

IIHS evaluations show that in the test group of 37 vehicles, more than half are rated Marginal or Poor for headlight performance; only 12 are available with headlights rated “Acceptable.” In many cases, higher-rated headlights are only offered on a model’s more costly trim levels. The IIHS particularly cites the frequency with which these lights do a poor job of lighting up the road, and/or cause too much glare for drivers of oncoming vehicles. The latter is a particular issue for SUVs since their headlights are usually mounted higher than those of a sedan. However, the IIHS’s new ratings indicate that SUV headlights are improving when it comes to providing visibility.

“As a group, midsize SUV headlights perform slightly better than the other SUVs and pickups we evaluated last year, and that's encouraging,” says IIHS Senior Research Engineer Matt Brumbelow. “Still, we continue to see headlights that compromise safety because they only provide a short view down the road at night.”

Nighttime visibility is critical to highway safety, the IIHS notes, because about half of traffic deaths occur either in the dark or at dawn or dusk. Differences in bulb type, headlight technology, and how the lights are aimed all affect the amount of useful light supplied. In the Institute's evaluations, engineers measure how far light projects from a vehicle's low beams and high beams as the vehicle travels straight and on curves. The IIHS also measures the level of glare that drivers of oncoming vehicles experience from low beams in each scenario.

Many SUVs have various headlight options, often dependent on the trim level. The 37 SUVs that the IIHS evaluated have 79 possible headlight combinations.

Most headlights use one of three different light sources: halogen, high-intensity discharge (HID), or LED. Each of these can be paired with either reflector lenses (which have multiple surfaces that bounce the light forward) or projector lenses (which use one lens to spread the light out). All headlight variants rated Good or Acceptable in this group of midsize SUVs have projector lenses, and all three good-rated headlight variants are HID. However, those features don’t guarantee Good or Acceptable IIHS ratings.

The XC60 option that wins the Good rating consists of curve-adaptive HID projector headlights, which swivel with the steering wheel to better illuminate bends in the road. These headlights are also available with optional high-beam assist, which helps increase high-beam use by automatically switching between high and low beams depending on the proximity of other vehicles. To qualify for these options, buyers of the XC60 must spring for the Advanced or the Active Dual Xenon Headlights package of options.

The Hyundai Santa Fe, which also gets a Good rating for its headlights, features curve-adaptive HID projector headlights with high-beam assist, as part of the optional Tech package. However, the Santa Fe's base halogen headlights earn a poor rating because of inadequate visibility.

The Nissan Pathfinder's LED headlights and the Volvo XC90's adaptive LEDs have earned Marginal ratings—up from Poor in previous tests. However, vehicles need a Good or Acceptable headlight rating to qualify for a 2017 Top Safety Pick+ award.

On the other hand, the Kia Sorento's curve-adaptive HID projector low beams fail to provide adequate visibility on the straightaway, left curves, and the gradual right curve. The Ford Edge is another poor performer, with its base halogen projector and optional HID projector low beams both failing to provide adequate visibility in any test scenario. Its high beams are likewise deemed to provide inadequate illumination. Both options’ low beams produce unacceptable glare for oncoming motorists.

“Managing glare can be more challenging for taller vehicles like SUVs and pickups because their headlights are mounted higher than on cars,” Brumbelow reiterates. “Better aim at the factory can minimize glare.”

For complete midsize SUV headlight ratings, visit:

Additional Research:

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