UPDATED: 8/21/14 3:05 pm ET - adds analyst comment
Editor's note: An earlier version of this story included an incorrect photo of the 2015 Honda Fit.
Honda Motor Co. plans to modify 12,000 redesigned 2015 Fit models in U.S. customer hands following a mid-model-year engineering change that improved the subcompact’s showing in a key industry crash test.
After receiving a “marginal” score on the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety’s small overlap frontal crash test in March, Honda engineers adjusted the welding process for the front bumper beam behind the Fit’s front fascia to make the vehicle more crashworthy.
In a second IIHS crash test of the 2015 Fit in July, requested by Honda after the engineering change, the vehicle earned an “acceptable” rating in the institute’s small overlap frontal crash test.
The production change was implemented on June 9 -- leaving thousands of 2015 Fits initially produced at Honda’s new assembly plant in Mexico on and after April 11 without the enhanced front bumper.
The latest results also earned the Fit a 2014 Top Safety Pick rating from the IIHS because it received the top rating in the institute’s four other crash tests.
In the insurance institute’s overlap frontal crash test, 25 percent of the driver’s side front end strikes a solid barrier at 40 mph.
Small overlap frontal crashes, where a vehicle strikes a pole, tree or other vehicle, account for about a quarter of all injuries and deaths that occur in frontal crashes, according to IIHS. The test was adopted by IIHS starting in 2012.
“We’d targeted a top safety pick for our customers in the subcompact segment and we really just weren’t satisfied with not achieving that,” Chuck Thomas, Honda’s chief engineer of vehicle safety, told journalists on a conference call Wednesday. “We worked hard to engineer robustness into the structure of the vehicle.”
Honda's move underscores the lengths automakers will go today to enhance safety ratings amid growing scrutiny from regulators and consumers in a record-breaking year of recalls.
In the first test, the institute said the Fit’s bumper beam, a steel bar located behind the plastic bumper cover, broke free of the frame rail on the passenger side early in the crash. The impact caused more crash energy to be absorbed by the driver side of the car, resulting in extensive intrusion into the occupant compartment and excessive upward movement of the steering column, IIHS said in a statement today.
In the second test with the improved welds, the Fit’s bumper beam stayed attached to the frame rail. IIHS said intrusion into the occupant compartment was reduced, and the steering column was much more stable, resulting in an acceptable rating.
All of the initial 2015 Fits produced have been sold in the United States, according to Honda.
Thomas said the modification to the welding process was not the reason for the delayed launch of the 2015 Fit.
Notifications going out
The automaker will notify all owners of 2015 Fits eligible for the voluntary replacement of the front bumper beam starting in late September. Owners can have the modification made free of charge at any registered Honda dealership.
The new bumper beam is not expected to affect the weight or estimated fuel economy of the Fit, Honda said.
The company did not disclose the cost to modify and replace the Fit’s front bumper beam.
IIHS estimates the wholesale cost of the new bumper beam at $60 a vehicle and estimates it would require 60 minutes to install at about $48 an hour.
Jeff Schuster, an analyst with LMC Automotive, said it is worth the extra investment to not only achieve a better safety rating, but keep current Honda buyers happy.
"Competitive pressures are so intense and loyalty is down, so customer service can make or break you in the environment we are in now," Schuster said. "Safety is certainly king in the small car segment with larger SUVs and pickups on the road."
Thomas said Honda did not confer with NHTSA on the product update because it does not change any aspects of the vehicle regulated by the safety agency.
The update was only implemented to “improve the safety of the vehicle,” Thomas said. “The Fit is very safe.”
The 2014 Chevrolet Spark is the only other vehicle in the minicar segment to receive a 2014 Top Safety Pick rating from the institute. The Spark and the Fit received identical scores in all five crash tests conducted by the group.
"We commend Honda for its quick response ... and for taking the additional step," of reinforcing the Fit's front bumper, IIHS President Adrian Lund said.
Honda and its Acura brand have a combined nine models deemed tops for safety by IIHS, tying for the most among automakers in the U.S. market with Subaru.
Since 1999, manufacturers have requested re-tests about two dozen times and called back vehicles that performed poorly, IIHS said.
Last year, the rating on the Toyota Camry sedan improved after doing poorly in initial IIHS testing, though Toyota did not upgrade Camrys that had already been sold.
Consumer Reports pulled its recommendation of the 2013 Honda Fit after it performed poorly in January and is now testing the 2015 model.
Reuters contributed to this report.