In a warehouse-size room off a rural Virginia road, 750,000 watts of lights flip on to illuminate the spot where a minivan will be flung into a concrete-and-steel barrier at 40 miles per hour.
Seconds later, there’s a deafening crash. A test dummy’s head comes to rest on an airbag inside the intact driver’s-seat compartment. Peering down from above the wreckage, Chuck Thomas lets out a sigh of relief.
“This is pretty much what we expected to see,” says Thomas, chief engineer for auto safety research at Honda Motor Co.’s U.S. research and development facility.
Safety sells — especially when it comes to the core audience for minivans: women. Passing this test is so important to Honda that it redesigned its Odyssey with that in mind.
The test results, to be announced Aug. 29, will help determine whether the 2014 Odyssey wins a “top safety pick plus” designation from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. That would let Honda advertise its top-selling minivan as among the safest vehicles in its class.
Honda, based in Tokyo, wouldn’t have been able to make that claim before. The 2012 Odyssey’s passenger compartment buckled when the test, designed to simulate one of the deadliest types of front-end collisions, was being developed. It would have scored “poor” had the test been for real.
“Safety resonates with consumers in a good way,” said Michelle Krebs, senior analyst for auto researcher Edmunds.com. “For a vehicle like the Honda Odyssey, it’s not design. It’s for carrying families and carrying them safely.”
The auto-information company Kelley Blue Book, in data being released this month, found women are 31 percent more likely than men to shop for minivans on its website. Seventy-six percent of women said safety features influence their purchases compared with 61 percent of men, according to a survey of its website shoppers.
Motivated by the previous failure, Honda’s engineers worked on a redesign to send the crash energy to places other than where the driver sits. The minivan is designed to rotate upon impact, taking some of the crash energy along to move the vehicle. The new Odyssey also got more high-strength steel than its predecessor.
The company then asked the insurance institute to retest the Odyssey, at Honda’s expense, ahead of schedule and in time for the start of a new model year.
Joe Nolan, the insurance institute’s vice president for vehicle research, said he was “very excited to see such a good performance in a popular people mover.” Nolan spoke in an interview from the crash-test site before the results are released. The Odyssey is the best-selling minivan in the U.S. this year, selling 79,733 vehicles through July, according to researcher Autodata Corp.
The so-called small-overlap test, introduced last year, simulates a vehicle’s front corner colliding with a car, tree or pole. It simulates a more severe crash than tests used by U.S. regulators to rate vehicles on a five-star safety system.
Only one of 13 small SUVs tested earlier this year scored “good.” Among small cars, half passed while the rest scored “marginal” or “poor.”
“You’re trying to peel the car like an onion,” said Karl Brauer, a senior analyst at Irvine, Calif.-based automotive researcher Kelley Blue Book. “To not let it get peeled like an onion is an impressive feat of engineering.”
The Odyssey, which debuted in model year 1995, has since 1999 been rated “good,” the insurance group’s highest of four rating categories. Last year’s result in the small-overlap test didn’t hurt the rating because the test was being developed.
IIHS, based in Arlington, Va., also analyzes roof crush in rollover crashes, side impacts, moderate-overlap in front crashes and rear impacts. Insurers led by State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Co., the largest seller of personal auto policies in the U.S., have a stake in the results because if fewer people are killed or injured in crashes, they pay less in claims.
Automakers crash their own vehicles as they develop them, in addition to testing by the insurance group and the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
“It’s not unusual for us in around a year to run 300 crash tests,” Thomas said.
Creating a prototype car can cost $1 million, Thomas said. Because wrecking a new car is so expensive, Honda and other automakers also increasingly use computer simulations to predict crash results.
When a vehicle is crashed, researchers look at whether the head restraint prevents whiplash, how airbags deploy and if seatbelts restrain occupants as they’re supposed to.
Dummies measure acceleration, rib deflection and the force of the crash on the body and communicate their results wirelessly. Each test has to be exactly like every other one and the dummies precisely calibrated.
“Otherwise we will have crashed a really expensive car for nothing,” said Marshie Agee, a visitor relations representative for the IIHS facility.
The totaled 2012 Odyssey remains a reminder to Honda of what it has worked to overcome. It resides in a graveyard of crashed vehicles inside the IIHS building, which is set back from a winding country road flanked by rusting farm trucks and trailers.
The showroom of wrecks also includes a Mitsubishi Motors Corp. Lancer that had its side support sheared in two in a 2005 side-impact test.
The Japanese automaker redesigned the car, leading it to earn a “top safety pick” designation in 2008 — the very comeback Honda is looking to complete.