Last month, Consumer Reports announced that it had removed its recommendation from four popular models: the Audi A4 and Toyota Camry, Prius V, and RAV4. Since then, we’ve received many questions regarding this change, including via our own forums.
The key point here is that there has been no change in the requirements to earn the coveted Consumer Reports’ recommendation. Our longstanding criteria for recommending vehicles stipulates that a model score well in our testing, have average or better reliability, and perform adequately if included in crash tests performed by the government and/or the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.
Since the IIHS introduced its latest crash test—the small-overlap frontal test—back in 2012, we have watched the results with great interest. Other existing crash tests conducted by the IIHS have pushed automakers to make increasingly safer cars, and we anticipate this will do the same. This newest test was designed to replicate what happens when only the front corner of a vehicle strikes an object, such as pole, addressing another somewhat common real-world scenario not factored in existing, publicized evaluations.
With the small-overlap test, IIHS was leveraging an opportunity to further advance safety. Based on IIHS data from 2009, the test replicates a scenario that occurs in a quarter of frontal collisions involving serious or fatal injury to front-seat occupants, even in cars with otherwise good crash protection.
Simply put, the small-overlap test is a new challenge for automakers. It requires a different engineering strategy to protect occupants from the force being concentrated on a smaller section of the car’s front, just 25 percent compared to the 40 percent for the traditional IIHS front crash test. While both tests are conducted at 40 mph, the familiar moderate offset test sees the vehicle career into a deformable barrier and the small-overlap test uses a fixed, hard barrier. The small impact zone against a solid object concentrates crash forces on the vehicle’s outer edges, which aren’t well protected by the traditional crush zones. (Learn more about safety in "Crash Test 101.")
It was clear from the initial vehicles that faced the small-overlap test that older models were at a disadvantage. New models designed with this protocol in mind tended to fair better. Over time, manufacturers updated existing cars, while others introduced new models based on traditional redesign cycles, leading to more and more vehicles earning an Acceptable score or higher.
Among the poor performers, most were ineligible for Consumer Reports’ recommendation for other reasons, such as a low overall road test score or below-average predicted reliability based on our latest survey data released in October. Just four models met those criteria, while falling short in this test. (See our complete guide to car reliability.)
The Toyota Camry situation
Much attention has been paid to the Toyota Camry losing its Recommendation—an otherwise great car in a rare situation. With safety continuing to be a top priority among car shoppers, based on our surveys, we take automotive safety very seriously. We want to use the very latest information to empower consumers to make a smart purchase decision, and sometimes that can lead to adjusting our ratings.
In addition, through numerous internal discussions, we kept circling back to: Would any staff member recommend buying a new Camry to a family member over its competitors? The clear answer was: No.
That’s not to say that the Camry is less safe now than it was last year. Rather, the Camry has lost pace with its competition. As a used car, the Camry is still a fine choice. Relative to other used cars, which also weren’t initially designed with this test in mind, the Camry remains a top used model.
How the Toyotas stack up
In looking down the list of midsized sedans tested by IIHS, every single other model scores higher. There are no other Poors in this category. That means the Chevrolet Malibu, Chrysler 200, Dodge Avenger, Ford Fusion, Honda Accord, Hyundai Sonata, Kia Optima, Mazda6, Nissan Altima, Nissan Maxima, Subaru Legacy, Suzuki Kizashi, Volkswagen Jetta, and Volkswagen Passat all passed this test, leaving the Camry as the lone outlier in its class. Also, in the IIHS category "midsized moderately priced cars," the Prius V is the only other model beside the Camry to receive a Poor in the test.
The ratings aren’t as lonely for the Toyota RAV4, which earned a Poor even after an update was made "to better control the stability of the steering column and to provide extra padding under the footwell carpeting," according to the IIHS. Also scoring Poor in this test from the small SUV category: Buick Encore, Ford Escape, Hyundai Tucson, Jeep Patriot, and Kia Sportage. Most of those vehicles were not eligible for a CR Recommendation due to reliability and/or overall road test scores. Even cutting those from a shopper’s list, there are still several good choices, such as the Honda CR-V, Mazda CX-5, Subaru Forester, and Volkswagen Tiguan.
The bottom line is that our subscribers deserve the best car-buying advice we can provide, and right now, that includes considering other models than the A4, Camry, Prius V, and RAV4. Should their performance improve in future tests, we will adjust their recommended status accordingly.
More from Consumer Reports:
Consumer Reports' top scoring cars
Best & worst new cars
Guide to the best small SUVs
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