RUCKERSVILLE, Va. -- The engineers who work on the Honda Odyssey pay close attention to crash-test ratings. Safety sells minivans, and Honda has long taken pains to maintain the vehicle's five-star safety ratings from the government.
So they were determined to prevent the type of steel carnage they saw in late 2011, when the crash testers at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety laboratories here sent a 2012 Odyssey zooming into the corner of a concrete barrier at 40 mph.
The impact obliterated the corner of the van and left a gaping hole where the left front tire had been. Behind that, the driver-side foot well and door frame buckled, which would have put a driver at risk of severe leg injuries.
These were the telltale wounds of a "small overlap" crash, in which the front corner of a car strikes an oncoming car, a pole or a tree. Now that the IIHS has made a high rating on its new small-overlap crash test a prerequisite for its stricter Top Safety Pick+ honors, protecting passengers from these crashes has become a pressing challenge for automakers.
And it's a tough one -- not least because of the unique nature of the crash. A small-overlap impact misses the steel beams that crumple to cushion a head-on crash, said Chuck Thomas, Honda's chief engineer for vehicle structure research, during a visit to the safety group's Virginia laboratory to witness the 2014 Odyssey's crash test.
"The structures which are most capable of absorbing that kind of front-end energy just aren't so accessible," he says. "That's what makes these crashes very severe."
Automakers prefer to save complex engineering changes for the redesign of a model, but brands that have built their reputation around safety had to move quickly. Subaru, for example, bolstered the steel frame of the Legacy sedan and Outback wagon as part of a freshening. Volvo reprogrammed the side curtain airbags in the XC60 crossover. All three passed the IIHS test to earn Top Safety Pick+ honors.
Some automakers -- most notably, Toyota -- have struggled. America's best-selling car, the Toyota Camry sedan, received a "poor" rating on the small-overlap test for the 2013 model year. So did the Prius V hybrid and RAV4 crossover.
Joe Nolan, head of the IIHS crash laboratory, said it usually takes five or six years -- one full product cycle -- for all models in a particular brand to ace a new crash test. "The programming of an airbag can change pretty quickly," Nolan said. "But a fundamental change to the architecture of the front end of the vehicle? That's a pretty big deal."
Toyota is racing to catch up. Nolan said the company asked IIHS to test the redesigned Corolla compact, Prius compact hybrid and Highlander SUV -- as well as the Camry, which is getting a freshening for the 2014 model year.
It shows Toyota expects those models to do better on the small-overlap test, he said.