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Honda, Volvo try to improve small-car safety

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Honda, Volvo try to improve small-car safety
Rick Popely Chicago Tribune

CHICAGO - In a head-on collision between a small car such as the Honda Civic and a full-size pickup, the laws of physics say the larger, heavier vehicle will inflict more damage and the occupants of the smaller one are more likely to be killed or injured.

Honda does not claim it can defy physics but it said the front structures on its future models will provide more protection in collisions like that without doing more damage to other vehicles.

In a similar vein, Volvo said its new S40 compact sedan due out in March will provide the same crash protection as its midsize S80 sedan.

The mismatch between light trucks and passenger cars is at the forefront of safety concerns, particularly trucks accounting for more than half of new-vehicle sales.

Federal data show that in car-truck collisions, the car occupants usually fare worse. In head-on crashes in 2001 between light trucks and cars, 1,365 car occupants were killed compared with 375 truck occupants.

Automakers announced in early December voluntary standards that will make trucks less damaging in crashes by lowering their bumpers and frame heights to match those of cars.

In addition, the auto industry agreed to tougher side-impact standards that will encourage the installation of side air bags. The standards will phase in over the next six years.

Honda said it will go beyond those steps by designing a front structure that will provide more protection if a truck overrides a Honda car's bumpers.

Called Advanced Compatibility Engineering, it will appear first on the 2005 Honda Odyssey minivan and Acura RL sedan. Other models will get the architecture as they are redesigned.

ACE is a network of cross members and supporting beams that spreads crash energy in different directions. This is instead of the traditional approach of absorbing the crash through the front bumper and straight into frame rails that run the length of a vehicle.

John Turley, a Honda safety engineer, said ACE absorbs up to 50 percent more force in a collision and works when the bumpers and frame rails of vehicles don't match up.

Some of the structural beams in the ACE design are placed above and below the bumpers and are connected so they distribute the crash force, including that from an angle.

All vehicles must pass the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's head-on crash test into a flat wall, which allows the crash force to be absorbed evenly by the frame rails.

In real-world crashes, Turley said, "There are varying sizes of vehicles out there that don't look like a brick wall. Where you will see the benefit is in crashes with vehicles of different heights and widths."

Volvo, long seen as a safety leader, took a different approach with the S40 sedan. Volvo used what it calls a zone system of four grades of increasingly stronger steel to absorb a frontal crash and keep the passenger compartment intact.

NHTSA has not tested the S40, but Volvo expects it will receive the same 5-star ratings for front and side collisions as the S80. The S40 has passed European crash tests.

"What we intended to do was build a small car that has the same safety characteristics as a larger car," Volvo spokesman Dan Johnston said.

Volvo used computer simulations of frontal crashes to reduce chances that the engine would penetrate the S40's passenger compartment. The simulations were conducted without an engine, which was then designed to fit the space that remained after the crash.

Though the automakers say these designs will improve the safety of smaller cars, Adrian Lund, chief operating officer of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, is skeptical.

"There is no question they've improved the front crash protection of their vehicles, but it also suggests they are using a little hyperbole and may be overselling what they've done," Lund said. "The fact is, there is greater protection from greater size and greater mass. You cannot rewrite the law of physics."

Turley responds: "We can still say it will provide more protection than if there was nothing there."


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