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Small SUV Headlights Fail to Impress in IIHS Test

Small SUV Headlights Fail to Impress in IIHS Test

By Joseph Dobrian, July 12, 2016
Out of the 21 small SUVs tested by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), none earns a “Good” rating (the Institute’s highest) in this year’s headlight evaluations. In fact, only four are available with headlights that are rated as “Acceptable” (the second-highest rating). Further, more than two-thirds of the 47 available headlight combinations on those 21 vehicles are rated as “Poor” (the Institute’s lowest rating). The IIHS notes that this issue is critical because about half of traffic deaths occur either in the dark or around dawn or dusk.

More modern lighting types, including high-intensity discharge (HID) and LED lamps, and curve-adaptive systems, which swivel in the direction of steering, offer no guarantee of good performance; neither does the vehicle’s price tag, according to the IIHS.

"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."

The IIHS rating system measures the amount of usable light provided by low beams and high beams as vehicles travel on straightaways and curves, regardless of actual lighting technology. The Institute’s after-dark evaluations measure how far the light is projected as the vehicle is driven on five approaches: traveling straight; a sharp left curve; a sharp right curve; a gradual left curve; and a gradual right curve. The IIHS measures glare from low beams for oncoming drivers in each scenario. A vehicle with excessive glare on any of the approaches can't earn a rating higher than “Marginal” (third-highest of the four ratings). Vehicles can earn extra credit for automatic high-beam assist, since it can increase currently low rates of high-beam use.

The best-performing headlights in the small SUV group are available on the Grand Touring trim level of the new Mazda CX-3 crossover. They are curve-adaptive LED lights with optional high-beam assist. The IIHS reports that the low beams perform well on both right curves and fairly well on the straightaway and sharp left curve; however, they provide inadequate light on the gradual left curve. The high beams perform well on most approaches.

Other models available with headlights rated as “Acceptable” are the Ford Escape, Honda CR-V, and the Hyundai Tucson. None of the three are curve-adaptive, and only the Escape has high-beam assist. Still, all of them provide fair or good illumination in most scenarios. Consumers considering models with “Acceptable” headlights should make certain that they’re getting a vehicle with the proper headlights, which might not be standard on all trims.

The worst headlights among the small SUVs belong to the 2016 Honda HR-V, also a new model for this year. The illumination provided by the HR-V's halogen low beams and high beams is inadequate on all four curves and on the straightaway, according to the IIHS. The HR-V is one of 12 small SUVs that can't be purchased with anything other than headlights rated as “Poor.”

Seventeen of the rated SUV headlight combinations have unacceptable glare, the IIHS says. They include all types of lights—halogen, HID, and LED—and none is more likely than the others to have excessive glare. Three of the 17 fell short of an “Acceptable” rating on the basis of glare alone.

"Glare issues are usually a result of poorly aimed headlights," Brumbelow says. "SUV headlights are mounted higher than car headlights, so they generally should be aimed lower. Instead, many of them are aimed higher than the car headlights we've tested so far."

The IIHS tested headlights for midsize cars earlier this year and plans to test pickup trucks next.
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