NEW YORK -- They didn't have display stands or news conferences, but the safety watchdogs at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety and Consumer Reports magazine had an outsize effect on the cars unveiled here last week.
Core products such as the Dodge Charger, Toyota Camry and Volkswagen Jetta have gotten major midcycle overhauls to help them win a top rating from the IIHS and improve their chances of getting the sought-after "recommended" status from Consumer Reports.
It's a sign of how the issue of safety -- squarely in the spotlight amid General Motors' ignition switch crisis -- has forced automakers to upend the five- and six-year product cycles that typically saved the most costly engineering work for the next-generation model. Now that the IIHS has started tightening its ratings criteria each year, automakers can't afford to wait a few years for a safety upgrade.
Take the Volkswagen Jetta, currently unheralded on the IIHS' rating scale. At the New York auto show, VW unveiled a reworked version of the compact sedan that would make it eligible for the highest score: Top Safety Pick+.
That meant packing in crash-avoidance features such as forward collision warning, and stronger crash structures to pass the IIHS' small-overlap test, which simulates a crash in which the corner of the front end clips an object such as a roadside barrier.
Some reviewers and commentators in New York pooh-poohed the freshened Jetta, saying its bland design would do little to lift VW in the United States.
Michael Horn, the CEO of Volks-wagen Group of America, suggested they were missing the point.
"We want to be always best in class [with] top-notch safety," Horn said. "Yes, we could invest much more in exterior design and those things, but the Volkswagen way -- although it sometimes may be difficult to understand for Americans -- is also the interior values. And safety and quality is a very important aspect of this."
Toyota drew accolades for the looks of the freshened Camry, the best-selling car in the United States. But the changes to the car this time were chiefly cosmetic.
The big, expensive engineering work already had been done. In the middle of the 2014 model year, Toyota changed the Camry's front-end structure to boost its small-overlap performance and regain its "recommended" status from Consumer Reports. Consumers couldn't tell the difference from the outside, so the new cars bore a sticker that simply said "2014.5."
It was a major challenge for Toyota to make these changes in the middle of the product cycle, let alone in the middle of a model year. "If you develop a new crash architecture for front-offset, it adds kilograms," Toyota spokesman Mike Michels said. "So you lose mpg. So then you have to lose kilograms somewhere else."
To get a Top Safety Pick+ award in 2013, cars needed to get an "acceptable" or "good" score on the small-overlap test. For 2014, cars also need to have forward collision warning or automatic braking as a standard or optional feature.
But automakers aren't settling for "acceptable," knowing that IIHS is likely to keep tightening its criteria. The Hyundai Sonata mid-sized sedan already had earned an "acceptable" score on the small-overlap test. With its latest redesign, the front end was bolstered further and is expected to earn a "good" score.
Mark Rechtin contributed to this report.
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