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Most SUV Headlights Disappoint in Tests

June 13, 2017

Video: IIHS SUV Headlight Tests

The 2017 Hyundai Santa Fe and the 2017 Volvo XC60 were the only vehicles to garner a rating of “good” when the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety recently tested the headlights of 37 mid-size SUVs, the institute said.

Twelve SUVs are available with headlights rated “acceptable,” while 23 aren’t available with any headlights rated above “marginal” or “poor.” This is the fourth group of vehicles IIHS has tested since launching headlight ratings last year. (To view a video about the latest test results, click on the photo or link below the headline.)

“As a group, midsize SUV headlights perform slightly better than the other SUVs and pickups we evaluated last year, and that’s encouraging,” said Matt Brumbelow, IIHS senior research engineer. “Still, we continue to see headlights that compromise safety because they only provide a short view down the road at night.”

Nighttime visibility is critical to highway safety because about half of traffic deaths occur either in the dark or at dawn or dusk, IIHS said in a summary of the evaluations. Differences in bulb type, headlight technology and even how the lights are aimed all affect the amount of useful light provided. Properly aimed low beams light up the road ahead without temporarily blinding the drivers in oncoming vehicles.

During IIHS headlight tests, engineers measure how far light projects from a vehicle’s low beams and high beams as the vehicle travels straight and on curves. Engineers also measure low-beam glare for oncoming vehicles to make sure it isn’t excessive.

Headlights can vary by trim line, so vehicles often come with multiple headlight variants. The 37 SUVs that IIHS evaluated have 79 possible headlight combinations. Most headlights use one of three different light sources: halogen, high-intensity discharge (HID) or light-emitting diode (LED). Each of these can be paired with either reflectors or projector lenses. Projector headlights use one lens to spread the light, while reflectors have multiple surfaces that bounce the light forward.

In this group of mid-size SUVs, all the headlight variants that drew a rating of “good” or “acceptable” have projector lenses, IIHS noted. The three headlight variants that earned “good” ratings are HID. But having HIDs and/or projector lenses doesn’t guarantee good or acceptable performance in IIHS evaluations.

The XC60 is available with optional curve-adaptive HID projector headlights, which earned the top rating. Curve-adaptive headlights swivel with the steering wheel to better illuminate bends in the road.

The XC60’s HID headlights also can be purchased with optional high-beam assist, which helps increase high-beam use by automatically switching between high beams and low beams depending on the presence of other vehicles. Models equipped with high-beam assist earn extra credit in IIHS ratings.

The “good”-rated HID headlights on the XC60 are available with the Advanced package or the Active Dual Xenon Headlights package. With the Hyundai Santa Fe, the “good”-rated curve-adaptive HID projector headlights with high-beam assist are included in the Tech Package.

More than half of the 79 headlight variants evaluated produced too much glare, IIHS said. In 17 of those cases, the headlights would be rated “poor” based on glare alone. Driver complaints about glare from oncoming headlights are common, according to National Highway Traffic Safety Administration research.

“Managing glare can be more challenging for taller vehicles like SUVs and pickups because their headlights are mounted higher than on cars,” Brumbelow said. “Better aim at the factory can minimize glare.”

Vehicles need “good”- or “acceptable”-rated headlights to qualify for a 2017 Top Safety Pick+ award from IIHS.

Below are the test results. Click on the model name to access the vehicle's full report.

Luxury SUVs

GOOD

Volvo XC60 

-----

ACCEPTABLE

Acura MDX

Acura RDX

BMW X5

Buick Envision

Infiniti QX70

Lexus NX

Lexus RX

Mercedes-Benz GLE

-----

MARGINAL

2018 Audi Q5

BMW X3

Cadillac XT5

Infiniti QX50

Lincoln MKT

Volvo XC90

-----

POOR

Infiniti QX60

Lincoln MKC

Lincoln MKX

----- 

Nonluxury SUVs

GOOD

Hyundai Santa Fe

-----

ACCEPTABLE

Honda Pilot

Jeep Cherokee

Jeep Grand Cherokee

Toyota Highlander

-----

MARGINAL

2018 Chevrolet Equinox

Dodge Durango

Ford Flex

GMC Acadia

Nissan Murano

Nissan Pathfinder

-----

POOR

Dodge Journey

Ford Edge

Ford Explorer

GMC Terrain

Hyundai Santa Fe Sport

Jeep Wrangler

Kia Sorento

Toyota 4Runner

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