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The Globe and Mail

Crash test darlings: The safest family sedans

A front-end crash test of the 2011 Chevrolet Volt. The Chevrolet Volt and Nissan Leaf got top safety ratings in some of the first-ever tests of plug-in cars by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

AP Photo/Insurance Institute for Highway Safety

Standard safety equipment: electronic stability control, antilock braking, traction control, airbags front, side and in a curtain overhead and immobilizer anti-theft. All good and at no extra cost to the buyer.

All that protective gear, combined with body design techniques to dissipate crash forces, result in good crash test scores all around, not to mention seats with whiplash protection. The result is priceless: a Top Safety Pick for the 2011 Chevrolet Malibu from the U.S. Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

The Malibu, by the way, is not the newest design among the 15 mid-size sedans that earned the Top Safety rating by the testing arm of the U.S. insurance lobby. The current model will in fact be replaced next spring by the all-new Malibu shown last month at the New York auto show.

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Given the importance of the Malibu to Chevy, it's not surprising to see it on the Top Pick list - along with nine other totally mainstream mid-size cars. What was shocking to see is that among the Top 15, you'll find only three models from what one would call pure "premium" brands: the Audi A3, Audi A4 sedan and the Mercedes-Benz C-Class.

True, the Lincoln MKZ is from an upscale brand, as is the Volvo S60, but neither Lincoln nor Volvo is reasonably considered on a par with Audi, Mercedes-Benz and BMW. Speaking of BMW, its C-Class rival 3-Series earned good crash test scores, but the IIHS has not done a roof crush test on this model, so no Top Pick.

That said, overall the IIHS does a superb job of crash testing and rating new models not just for resilience in accidents, but also protection against rollovers and neck injuries - and the institute does an even better job of publicizing the results. That publicity has gone a long way toward pushing auto makers to include in middle-class cars the safety features once found only in high-end, luxury models.

Once high-end safety features, gizmos, gadgets and designs are trickling down faster than ever to affordable cars, dramatically improving the safety of the average family road trip.

Mid-size sedans such as the Hyundai Sonata and Volkswagen Jetta have a half dozen or more airbags and electronic stability control is increasingly common in $20,000-something family cars right across the board - along with body design techniques to dissipate crash forces. As far as safety is concerned, everyman's cars have gone upscale.

The proof is easily found. Online shoppers in Canada might not be able to get crash test results from their own federal government, but the U.S. Government ( and the IIHS ( more than make up for the weak offerings of Transport Canada's website. The IIHS, in particular, has used its research - and videos - to criticize car makers for not moving faster to adopt safety technology. And it's worked incredibly well.

Take side impacts. In 2003, the IIHS launched a test for how well vehicles protected passengers in a side impact crash. That year, seven of the vehicles the institute tested rated poor, and only two earned the top "good" rating. So far in 2010, the Institute has tested 17 vehicles, and all got a "good" rating, a fact the manufacturers can advertise.

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Stability or anti-skid control is another example of trickle-down safety - from luxury to mainstream. The computer-controlled brake system, which prevents a car from lurching into a sideways skid, first appeared on the market in the mid-1990s on Mercedes-Benz and BMW cars. Very quickly, research showed the systems could reduce crashes, and in particular could prevent SUVs from skidding and rolling over.

Within a few years, more auto makers began adopting anti-skid systems under pressure from regulators and consumers. And as production volumes for the computer chips and other electronic hardware rose, costs per car dropped. Now anti-skid is commonplace in the Malibu and others priced like it.

The future is sure to bring more of the same. Today, luxury brands are increasingly investing in sophisticated systems that help drivers avoid crashes. The new Mercedes E-Class, for example, can detect when a driver is drowsy and shake the steering wheel as if the car had gone over a rumble strip. This safety innovation is sure to find its way into the Malibu and the Sonata in just a few years' time.

Why? Auto makers and safety system suppliers race to develop exclusive technologies for high-end vehicles. A few years later, components makers turn to selling their hardware such as airbags, chips or brake parts as widely as possible to keep the profits rolling. Auto makers? Their competitive advantage is in the software and other details of how all the hardware works together in a car.

Makes you wonder: If the current Malibu and many rival models are today's Top Safety Picks, what exactly will it take to be earn tomorrow's Top Pick?

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