The Wall Street Journal
Luxury Cars Can Produce Pricey Fender Benders
Some Models Offer Little Protection In Minor Collisions
By JONATHAN WELSH
August 2, 2007; Page D4
Many drivers assume expensive luxury cars are better-built than lower-price models. But they may be surprised by how poorly bumpers protect the cars from damage in minor collisions.
They may also be surprised by the cost. Of 11 luxury cars tested recently by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, a research group financed by the insurance industry, four sustained more than $10,000 of damage in a series of four collisions at speeds of three and six miles per hour. The worst-performing car racked up nearly $14,000 of damage.
Unlike the high-speed crashes simulated in the insurance group's other tests, bumps at little more than walking speed rarely damage cars beyond repair and cause relatively few injuries. However, they happen so often in parking lots and slow-moving traffic that most drivers have been involved in such accidents, have come close or have at least witnessed them.
The total repair cost for damage from four impact tests -- on each car's front and rear bumpers and front and rear corners -- ranged from $5,243 for the 9-3 from Saab, a unit of General Motors Corp., to $13,983 for the Infiniti G35 from Nissan Motor Co.
Over the past few decades, changes in design and regulations have led to changes in bumpers. Once prominent steel structures that hung on the front and rear ends of cars, they have become less obtrusive in the last 25 years. Indeed, it has become difficult to tell where the car ends and the bumper begins on many models as bumpers have retreated behind plastic covers that blend into the vehicle's shape.
That blending, which often helps a vehicle aerodynamically, is part of the problem during minor collisions, the Insurance Institute says. Low, rounded bumpers often allow one vehicle to slide under another during a collision, causing costly damage to headlights, hoods and fenders. In the crash tests, frontal fender benders generally caused the most expensive damage, ranging from $976 for Volkswagen AG's Audi A4 to $5,486 for DaimlerChrysler AG's Mercedes-Benz C-Class.
In the rear-end crash test, the Audi performed best, with damage costs of $918, and the Infiniti was worst, at $4,035. In front-corner collisions, Ford Motor Co.'s Volvo S60 fared best, with damage of $543, while the Infiniti had the most expensive damage, at $3,544. The rear-corner test did $669 of damage to Ford's Lincoln MKZ, while the Audi A4 topped the list at $1,899. Other cars in the test group were BMW AG's 3-Series, Honda Motor Co.'s Acura TSX and Acura TL, and Toyota Motor Corp.'s Lexus IS and Lexus ES.
The cost of fixing the damage has increased over time and resulted in higher insurance claims. The average insurance payment per claim for collision coverage rose to $4,241 last year from $2,860 in 1996, according to the Insurance Institute.
Drivers involved in minor bumps in these luxury cars face the costly combination of flimsy bumpers and expensive parts. In front-end crashes, many bumpers weren't wide enough to protect headlights, especially in corner impacts. As a result, headlights were damaged in 15 of the 22 tests, and complex headlight assemblies on some cars can cost $800 to more than $1,000.
According to the Insurance Institute, damage to the Audi A4 in the rear-collision test was limited to the bumper cover, but the cover costs nearly $800 and then has to be installed and painted.
Write to Jonathan Welsh at email@example.com
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