While most modern cars offer good protection in head-on collisions, safety experts say small overlap crashes are a different story. Those crashes primarily affect a car's outer edges, which aren't well protected, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.
The IIHS released its findings Tuesday and said that only three of 11 midsize luxury and near-luxury cars earned good or acceptable ratings in the new overlap frontal crash test.
Overlap crashes are responsible for a quarter of all fatal front-end collisions, and as the new crash test found, most cars - domestic and foreign - are unprepared to keep drivers safe in one of these crashes.
"Nearly every new car performs well in other frontal crash tests conducted by the Institute and the federal government, but we still see more than 10,000 deaths in frontal crashes each year," Institute President Adrian Lund said in a news release. "Small overlap crashes are a major source of these fatalities."
The key to protection in any crash is a strong safety cage that resists deformation to maintain survival space for occupants.
"It's packaging 101. If you ship a fragile item in a strong box, it's more likely to arrive at its destination without breaking. In crashes, people are less vulnerable to injury if the occupant compartment remains intact," said Lund.
The IIHS also released a video with side-by-side comparisons of the dangers and damage between head-on and overlap collisions. In head-on crashes, the force is spread across the entire front-end safety cage of the vehicle. Cars are designed today to absorb impact in the center of the vehicle, not the corners.
"The main thing that needs to happen to provide better crash protection in these types of crashes is a better safety cage," said Lund.
Only three of the 11 midsize luxury cars put through the new test passed with good or acceptable ratings. The Acura TL and Volvo S60 earn good ratings, while the Infiniti G earns acceptable ratings. The Acura TSX, BMW 3 series, Lincoln MKZ and Volkswagen CC earn marginal ratings. The Mercedes-Benz C-Class, Lexus IS 250/350, Audi A4 and Lexus ES 350 earn poor. All of these cars are 2012 models.
"What we're seeing is the Insurance Institute is going to push the industry into further improving the crash protection in cars for the future," said Consumer Reports Deputy Automotive Editor Jeff Bartlett. "The good news is that in years to come manufacturers will be looking very closely at this and making changes that will further improve their crash worthiness."