WASHINGTON - The latest round of low-speed crash tests conducted by the insurance industry shows that automakers appear to be learning the knack of engineering vehicles that are more resistant to damage.
Eight of nine vehicles tested had less overall damage in the four crashes than the previous generations of those cars and trucks. The big exception: the 1999 Mazda Protege. While the front bumper on the new Protege performed better than the 1997 model in one test, the rear bumper sustained far worse damage than the model tested two years ago, analysts for the Insur-ance Institute for Highway Safety determined.
Principally because of damage to the rear bumper, the cost to repair all test damage on the 1999 Protege soared to $4,609 from $1,930 for the 1997 model, a 139 percent increase.
Brian O'Neill, president of the institute, said the two bumper designs probably look about the same to consumers. But there is one major difference: for 1999, Mazda eliminated an aluminum bar and energy-absorbing foam under the surface.
Officials of Mazda North American Operations said that while they believe the design is more than adequate for real-world situations, they are surprised and disappointed by the findings. They said company engineers will conduct a review of their own and discuss results with the institute.
In contrast to the Protege, the institute said improved bumpers on the 1999 Hyundai Elantra and Mitsubishi Galant performed much better than poorly rated previous models.
'This is exactly what bumpers are supposed to do. Their purpose is to prevent damage in low-speed collisions,' O'Neill said.
The institute tests bumpers by running cars and trucks at 5 mph into four obstacles. The tests are: front into a flat surface; front angled into a barrier; rear into a flat surface; and rear into a pole.