Only two out of 37 mid-sized SUVs scored the top rating in a new evaluation of headlights from the Insurance Institute of Highway Safety.
While headlight quality is improving, most mid-sized crossovers and SUVs still struggle to provide adequate illumination at night, the insurance industry nonprofit said Tuesday.
The study found that only the 2017 Volvo XC60 and the 2017 Hyundai Santa Fe achieved the highest possible score of “Good,” but the rating applied to models equipped with optional equipment packages.
“Mid-sized SUV headlights perform slightly better than the other SUVs and pickups we evaluated last year, and that’s encouraging,” said Matt Brumbelow, research engineer for IIHS. “Still, we continue to see headlights that compromise safety because they only provide a short view down the road at night.”
About half of all traffic fatalities occur at night, or during dawn or dusk, according to IIHS data. Yet few car shoppers conduct test drives in the dark, and therefore may not have a clear picture of how well one model lights the road compared to others.
Vehicles need to achieve a Good or Acceptable rating from IIHS in order to be considered for the agency’s highest Top Safety Pick+ award in overall safety.
All of the vehicles that scored Good or Acceptable in the headlights test use modern projector lenses rather than more traditional reflectors.
Both the XC60 and Santa Fe have optional High Intensity Discharge, or HID, projector headlamps that sport “curve-adaptive” technology to point the lights in the direction the vehicle is turning. The IIHS awards extra points to vehicles that offer curve-adaptive lights.
The same goes for high-beam assist, which automatically switches between high beams and low beams depending on whether other vehicles are nearby, in order to reduce glare.
In addition to the XC60 and the Santa Fe, 12 vehicles were rated the next-highest score of Acceptable; Acura, Lexus and Jeep each placed two SUVs in the category.
However, not all vehicles shone in the spotlight. Twelve vehicles scored just a Marginal rating. Another 11 models were classified as Poor.
While the refreshed three-row Hyundai Santa Fe earned the coveted Good mark, its two-row Santa Fe Sport variation was dinged with a Poor rating. While both models offer curve-adaptive technology, the Santa Fe and Santa Fe Sport use different projectors and different optics in their respective headlights, said Michael Stewart, spokesman for Hyundai.
The company will evaluate the IIHS data in order to improve future vehicles, Stewart said.
“We are confident the 2017 Santa Fe and 2017 Santa Fe Sport are two of the safest midsized SUVs on the road today,” he said.
Hyundai’s sibling company Kia also saw its Sorento model receive a Poor score.
“One of the worst midsize SUVs for visibility is the Kia Sorento,” IIHS said in its report. “The Sorento’s curve-adaptive HID projector low beams fail to provide adequate visibility on the straightaway, left curves and the gradual right curve. On the right side of the straightaway, for example, the Sorento’s low beams only illuminate 148 feet, compared with 315 feet for the XC60’s low beams.”
The top-selling vehicle in the mid-sized SUV segment, the Ford Explorer, also earned a Poor rating as did its smaller Ford Edge sibling and did two of Ford’s luxury arm vehicles, the Lincoln MKC and MKX.
Last year, IIHS tested pickup trucks and said the Ford F-150 – the bestselling vehicle in the U.S. – had one of the worst headlight systems.
Ford develops its headlamps through a combination of real-world driving and customer feedback, said Elizabeth Weigandt, spokeswoman for Ford.
“Safety is one of our highest priorities,” Weigandt said. “Our mid-sized SUV headlamps meet applicable federal motor vehicle safety laws, and we will consider the findings of the IIHS analysis as we work to continuously improve safety.”
But federal testing is conducted before the headlight is actually attached to the vehicle, said Russ Rader, spokesman for IIHS. Because of this, problems that aren’t detected during that initial phase can sometimes arise once the model is actually driven on the road, he said.
One example is excessive glare. SUVs and pickup trucks ride higher than sedans and tend to produce more glare for oncoming traffic. Better aim, engineered at the factory, can remedy the problem, Brumbelow said.
Many of the vehicles that were deemed Marginal or Poor suffered from exactly this issue. IIHS evaluated 79 total headlight combinations on the 37 vehicles and more than half produced too much glare.