Tesla's Model S Falls Short of Top Safety Rating Awarded to 42 Other Cars

  • Company claimed Model S had best rating ever in separate tests
  • Skull fracture was possible in small overlap test, IIHS says

Tesla Model S cars.

Photographer: Johannes Eisele/AFP via Getty Images

Tesla Motors Inc.’s Model S, once touted by the company as achieving a record-high safety score, fell short of a top designation an insurance group has awarded to 42 other new models on the market.

The Model S sedan earned an acceptable rating in one of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety’s five crash tests, a level shy of the good rating needed to qualify for the group’s Top Safety Pick accolade, according to a statement. The car earned good ratings in the four other crash-test categories.

Dummy measurements taken after a small overlap test, which measures how vehicles perform in front-left corner crashes, showed drivers could sustain a possible skull fracture, according to IIHS. The result of this test, in which the car collides with a rigid barrier at 40 miles per hour, led the group to downgrade Model S despite its body structure performing well enough for a good rating.

“It’s a pretty narrow miss on Tesla’s part,” said David Zuby, chief research officer for the insurer-funded group. “Head contact, while it is a concern, is not a big enough concern that we called it anything less than acceptable.”

The results contrast with claims Tesla made in August 2013 that the Model S achieved the “best safety rating of any car ever tested” following crash tests by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The government agency cautioned in its own statement at the time that it rated vehicles as much as 5 stars and didn’t rank or order vehicles within its star-rating categories.

Tesla’s Tweak

IIHS plans to test an updated Model S in the coming weeks, which Tesla expects to earn “the highest possible rating in every category” and be eligible for the Top Safety Pick award, the Palo Alto-based company said in a statement.

“We are committed to making the world’s safest cars, and Model S has previously received a 5-star safety rating from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration,” Tesla said in its statement. “Model S still has the lowest ever probability of injury of any car ever tested by NHTSA.”

It’s not uncommon for the same vehicle to perform differently in IIHS and NHTSA crash tests, Zuby said. In the insurance group’s test, the dummy’s head hit the Model S steering wheel through the airbag after the car’s seat belt allowed the dummy’s torso to move too far forward. To address the problem, Tesla said it made a production line change in January that it expects to address the issue.

BMW AG’s i3 electric car also failed to earn the Top Safety Pick award due to inadequate headlights and seat restraints. The other two vehicles in IIHS’s latest batch of results, General Motors Co.’s Chevrolet Volt and Toyota Motor Corp.’s Prius Prime plug-in hybrids, earned the IIHS Top Safety Pick+ award, which incorporates headlight ratings with the crash-worthiness and crash-avoidance requirements needed to earn Top Safety Pick awards.

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