How Euro NCAP Frontal Crash Tests Got More Realistic

Euro NCAP frontal crash tests are now vehicle-to-vehicle collisions – not collisions of a moving vehicle with a stationary object.

Photo: ADAC

You might have seen photos of crash tests in which two vehicles – two actual brand new vehicles – are crashed against each other by some safety rating agency. What should be kept in mind is that’s not how cars or SUVs get their safety ratings.

Such crash tests, with two production vehicles pitted against each other, might help develop actual test procedures. Plus, as they look like real-life crashes, they catch the viewer’s attention, and are a good way to illustrate a point. They are educational.

But the actual evaluation of a vehicle – determining its safety rating – is done by crashing it against a barrier.

And is the barrier stationary? Speaking about frontal crash tests only: in American tests, yes; in Euro NCAP tests, since 2020, not anymore.

It’s a trolley – with four wheels similar in size to those of a car or a SUV, a wheelbase slightly longer than in a typical European car, and weighing 1400 kg (about 3100 pounds) – still more than many compact hatchbacks on European roads. There is a deformable aluminum structure – the actual barrier – attached to the trolley’s front end.

Such trolleys, or “mobile barriers”, have been used in side impact testing for quite a long time (the barrier crashes into the side of a stationary car). But using them for frontal impact testing, as a standard procedure – that’s new. In the U.S., the NHTSA has been experimenting with mobile barriers for frontal impact testing for years; but, so far, hasn’t made them part of the test procedure.

The trolley is accelerated to 50 km/h (31 mph), while the tested vehicle is accelerated to the exact same speed in the opposite direction. The left part of the trolley’s front end collides (head on) with the left half of the tested vehicle’s front end.

The weight problem

It’s quite different from the old pre-2020 procedure, which wasn’t much different from the one still used by the American IIHS. To be exact, what I’m describing here is the “moderate overlap” or “moderate offset” frontal impact; both the IIHS and Euro NCAP use more than one scenario of frontal impact testing.

In the old procedure, instead of two moving objects – the tested vehicle and the trolley, both moving at 50 km/h (31 mph) – the tested vehicle was accelerated to 64 km/h (40 mph) and smashed against a stationary barrier.

And that old stationary barrier covered just 40% of the vehicle’s width – not 50%, like the new mobile barrier.

Cars, and SUVs, obviously don’t like crashing into narrow objects (such objects cut deep into the car’s structure) – so does it mean the new, wider barrier is actually less demanding? Not really, because the new barrier, while wider, is also lower – so the impact is still spread over a relatively small area (over a relatively small part of the car’s front end).

Also, the new barrier is made of harder material than the old barrier – more about that later.

But first, one obvious issue: the new barrier puts really small cars – like popular city cars – at a disadvantage.

In 2012, the German association ADAC tested four different tiny cars against the new barrier. Yes, in 2012, even though Euro NCAP adopted it only in 2020; development of crash test procedures in a slow process – maybe it does not need to be, but apparently those developing them preferred to give automakers some time to adapt.

These city cars – back then – boasted good Euro NCAP safety ratings; 4 or even 5 stars out of 5. Today, no car will get a good Euro NCAP rating if it’s not equipped with automatic crash prevention systems like automatic emergency braking or lane assist, no matter how well it does in the actual crash test (makes sense: it’s certainly better to avoid a crash than to be in a crash, no matter how safe the car). Back then, than policy was not yet in place – and the crash test results of these tiny cars did not look bad.

But when these cars were tested by ADAC against the new barrier, the results – to put it mildly – changed for the worse:

Best results are in green; then goes yellow, orange, brown/maroon, and red (worst results). Image: ADAC

What happened?

Well, in the old EuroNCAP tests, these cars only had to carry their own weight, so to speak. And they were light. When smashed against a stationary barrier, the structure of such a car would only need to deal with stresses caused by a relatively light object – the car itself.

And then that small car would basically come to a stop; no bouncing off the heavier vehicle, no being dragged/pushed by the heavier vehicle.

No wonder small (and cheap) cars used to get better results than bigger ones.

But that changed with the new trolley-barrier setup, which simulates a collision with another vehicle quite realistically. Note that the trolley (fixed weight of 1400 kg/3100 lbs, no matter what vehicle it’s crashed into) is heavier than any of the four cars tested. It’s kind of obvious that in a head-on collision between two vehicles of different weights, the lighter vehicle is in a worse position. Because even if its body structure holds, the passengers inside the lighter vehicle are still subjected to higher forces during the crash.

It’s interesting, though, that the best result of the four – the least terrible result – was achieved by the Smart (a.k.a. SmartCar). Even though it’s the lightest one. Designers of the Smart knew that its low mass was going to be a problem in an impact. But they designed the vehicle with a stiff “safety shell” named Tridion – which solves at least one problem, that of structural integrity. As for the crumple zone, the car basically uses the crumple zone of the vehicle that it crashes into.

Different dimensions and greater hardness of the new barrier might have contributed to these results, though. The new barrier is harder, and it also strikes slightly lower:

Left: old barrier. Right: new mobile barrier. Not exactly to scale. Data for the new barrier based on the prototype used by ADAC. Material strength (in megapascals, MPa) for both barriers might be slightly inaccurate, by up to 10%. Image: IIHS, Euro NCAP

The new barrier (unlike the old one) is also a good measuring device: it measures how much damage the tested vehicle would do the other vehicle in the crash. Not with sensors or anything like that; the shape of the barrier after the crash, alone, allows for calculating the forces acting on each point of the barrier quite precisely. Since 2020, Euro NCAP notes in the description of the test results whether the vehicle is an aggressive, moderately aggressive, moderately benign or benign “crash partner” to another vehicle.

Heavy means safe?

All of this looks like bad news for tiny cars. And not only for those not built with the new barrier in mind; even completely new designs are going to suffer if they are much lighter than the new test trolley.

In 2021, so after the new barrier came into use, the Skoda Fabia (which was a budget city car, at least in its previous incarnation) got an excellent Euro NCAP rating. The video shows the car hitting the trolley and barely bouncing off it. Good engineering, sure, but that’s not the whole explanation. It looks as if the weight difference between the car and the trolley weren’t that big. And, as it turns out, the Fabia is relatively heavy – at 1200 kg (2650 lbs), it enters what used to be the European compact car territory…

But I’m not criticizing Euro NCAP for choosing what is essentially a more realistic test procedure. By the way, in addition to changes to the frontal impact test, the organization also changed the side impact test procedure in 2020. Now the car is impacted from the side at the speed of 60 km/h (37 mph), not 50 km/h (31 mph) like before. In the U.S., the IIHS experimented with side crash testing at both these speeds; so far, they haven’t changed the standard procedure, sticking to 50 km/h, or 31 mph; although they use a different, much taller barrier that better simulates the front end of a pickup truck.

Note: I don’t think introducing a mobile barrier for frontal crash testing in the U.S. would be a good idea – not right now. It would probably be much heavier than the European one, which would result in poor safety ratings of cars (as opposed to heavier vehicles like SUVs and pickup trucks). And I don’t want cars to become an extinct species in the U.S.

And the complete list of additions and changes Euro NCAP made to their array of crash tests during the last 10 years is much longer than that. There is an increased focus on the safety of passengers in the rear seats – something that was mostly overlooked a decade ago.

To me, it looks like the ongoing shift toward EVs is going to help city cars in these tests. Because all that battery mass weighing electric vehicles down (that includes EVs that are city cars) now becomes an advantage.

Sources: [1] (in German), [2], [3], [4]

How Is BYD’s Expansion Into Norway Going?

Chinese brands are starting to offer their top-of-the-line electric SUVs in Norway. Norwegians are buying.

A BYD Tang EV in China. Photo: Jengtingchen

In Australia, deliveries of the BYD Atto 3 (a relatively small electric crossover) are delayed till October — even though at least one local journalist already got to test drive one.

Australia has recently become much like Europe when it comes to electric cars — demand outstrips supply. And now it looks like the Chinese automaker BYD won’t be bringing its reasonably priced (by Australian standards) crossover to the market this summer.

That’s in Australia; in Norway, the Chinese manufacturer marked its entry last year, by offering a large SUV with a power output of over 500 hp.

And, interestingly, it’s not even the most outlandish Chinese SUV sold in Norway.

* * *

BYD is one of two companies — the other one being Tesla — that pioneered modern long-range electric cars: Tesla with the Model S, BYD with the E6.

But, so far, BYD has been focused on China — its home market, and the world’s largest car market. Nothing spectacular came out of the plans of BYD expanding into the West, at least until 2021.

The BYD E6 — which got some attention when it was shown at the 2009 North American Auto Show — made its way into Europe, Australia and North America, but in very limited numbers, and mostly as taxis. With its 60-something-kWh battery (and that was in the beginning, before the battery capacity was increased) and without real competition, except for Tesla, it theoretically should have been a hit…

BYD was putting pressure on Western automakers by staying ahead of them in the EV race — both on the front of all-electric vehicles (the BYD E6 went on sale earlier than the Tesla Model S) and on the front of PHEVs (the BYD F3DM appeared before the Chevrolet Volt). But the Chinese automaker did not try to flood Western markets directly.

And that situation did not change even when BYD’s cars stopped looking like facelifted clones/mashups of older Japanese cars (which they initially were), and developed their own style.

BYD versus BMW

In 2021, deliveries of the BYD Tang EV finally started in Norway. It went on sale at a price appropriate for Norway (so, much higher than in China); the cockpit was revamped to give it a more premium look.

A large all-electric SUV with a power output of over 500 hp and a 0-100 km/h acceleration time of under 5 seconds — sounds good. But perhaps more importantly, the Tang offered three-row seating — something that wasn’t available on the Audi e-Tron, for example; it made the Chinese SUV stand out as a large-family-friendly option.

(Sure, there were electric passenger vans with three-row seating — the Mercedes-Benz EQV, and the Peugeot e-Traveller and its siblings. But some customers prefer SUVs over vans.)

By the way, the Tang is equipped with BYD’s much-touted “Blade Battery” (using LFP chemistry), whose most important feature is safety: it’s not supposed to catch fire even in case of damage. So, it was quite unfortunate when a Tang caught fire at an auto repair shop in Norway.

The continuing parts shortages (including semiconductor shortages) affecting other manufacturers should have worked in BYD’s favor. Unlike the competitors, the Chinese SUV could be bought without waiting. Although that situation continued for months — long wait times for other brands, zero wait times for the BYD Tang — without any huge increase in the Tang’s sales figures.

That doesn’t necessarily mean that the BYD Tang flopped in Norway. A bit less than 1100 vehicles were sold in 2021. And about 900 during the first half of 2022 (so, on average, 150 units per month).

The MG ZS EV, the MG Marvel R, and the NIO ES8 (all those are Chinese vehicles, and only the MG ZS EV — specifically, the previous generation of it — has been around in Europe for a longer time) did not achieve better results: a few hundred units each, and that’s spread over the entire first half of 2022. So, roughly 100 units per month, separately for each model.

Chinese electric SUVs are definitely making inroads in Norway — even if not very quickly.

As mentioned earlier, the Tang had the advantage of three-row seating (the Tesla Model Y also offers three-row seating — but there is not enough space for adult passengers’ heads in the third row). But then came the European automakers’ countermove: the BMW iX.

Saving the honor of the West, BMW started sending huge numbers of the iX — which happens to be a large three-row electric SUV — into Norway. Not only did it outsell the BYD Tang, it also became one of the most popular EVs in the Norwegian market overall. There are two battery sizes, 71 kWh and 105 kWh (that’s the usable capacity, not the gross capacity). I guess the smaller one is a more direct competitor to the Tang, even though it falls short of the BYD’s 86.4 kilowatt-hours of battery capacity. The wait times for the smaller-battery variant are actually tolerable (for the larger one, not so much).

And while the most basic variant of the BMW is still more expensive than the BYD, the gap in the price is actually not that big (about NOK 660,000 vs. about NOK 620,000).

Compared to the iX, the Chinese SUV has nothing to be ashamed of when it comes to power output or acceleration times. But what about the range?

The Norwegian Automobile Federation (here and here; you need to click “vis flere” — “see more” — in the second link a few times to load the full list) provides some useful information. According to their test data, the BYD Tang achieves 408 km (254 miles) in the summer and 356 km (221 miles) in the winter.

The smaller-battery variant of the BMW iX achieves 399 km (248 miles) in the summer and 309 km (192 miles) in the winter.

Although the Tang wins, I would say both of these vehicles disappoint a bit. If anyone is interested, the larger-battery variant of the BMW iX achieves some 569 km (354 miles) in the summer and 503 km (313 miles) in the winter — now that’s a long-range EV.

There is something weird about the Tang’s charging curve. It does not resemble a typical Li-ion charging curve, fast at the beginning and gradually slowing down until the end.

It is more flat, but not exactly flat: it mostly stays somewhere in the area between 75 kW and 120 kW, until… well, in the tests done by the Norwegian Automobile Federation, it was at least until the state-of-charge reached 80%.

In these tests, the Tang showed surprising consistency, charging from 5% to 80% is about 45 minutes in the summer, and in about 45 minutes in the winter. Other EVs practically never behave this way (charging in the summer is usually faster that in the winter). But in this case, the weaknesses of the winter charging curve (slow charging at the beginning — battery too cold) and of the summer charging curve (slower charging at the end — battery too warm) apparently canceled each other out, resulting in almost identical charging times.

Independently, the Norwegian online publication measured the charging time from 10% to 80%, and reported that it took about 45 minutes.

And the showdown between BMW and BYD just got even more interesting: apparently the updated, 2022 model year BYD Tang (which means the model introduced in the middle of 2022) is going to be equipped with a 108.8-kWh battery — rivaling the larger of the two battery variants of the BMW.

Hongqi enters the stage

If someone considers the BMW iX too big or ostentatious, or its styling too controversial, they probably won’t like the Hongqi E-HS9 either.

The luxury Chinese SUV from the state-owned FAW Group (BYD, on the other hand, is an independent private company) looks like an attempt to outdo everything else on the market — including the BMW iX.

And it’s proving reasonably popular in Norway: over 950 units were sold during the first half of the year.

Hongqi E-HS9. Photo: Hongqi


Sources: [1], [2], [3]

This article has been edited since first published.