Crash-test dummies are so last year. Both the U.S. government and private auto-safety raters made evident this week how tougher standards are moving beyond crash tests that just measure passenger protection. Now, they're evaluating systems that can avoid accidents altogether.
The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, a private organization funded by the insurance industry, has released its list of 2016 models that get its two top ratings: Top Safety Pick Plus and Top Safety Pick. To get the best rating, a vehicle must not only score well in crash tests but also include well-rated accident-avoidance technology, such as automatic braking.
Similarly, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration -- part of the U.S. Department of Transportation -- announced earlier this week that it's revising its 5-Star rating system to include automatic braking and other accident-avoidance features. DOT said it hopes the changes will prompt faster adoption of the new technologies, ideally eventually becoming as widespread as airbags and electronic stability control have in past decades.
Demonstrating how fast adoption of automatic braking is spreading, the IIHS list of 2016 cars includes 48 models that earn a Top Safety Pick Plus rating. To gain one of the top two ratings, a vehicle must get a top score of "Good" in crash tests that cover front and side impact and rollover accidents, and also have accident-prevention technology. If those automatic braking systems pass the IIHS tests, the vehicle then gets a Top Safety Pick Plus rating.
On the 2016 IIHS list, Toyota (TM) leads all manufacturers with nine Top Safety Pick Plus ratings. Honda (HMC) has eight, Volkswagen (VLKAY) and its Audi subsidiary seven and Subaru six. Chrysler's (FCAU) 200 is the only vehicle from a Detroit-based brand to get a Top Safety Pick Plus award. Among the 13 Top Safety Pick choices, General Motors (GM) has five and Ford (F) has one, the F-150 SuperCrew pickup.
Tougher standards this year -- both for accident-avoidance technology and an especially difficult crash test -- eliminated more than 20 vehicles that won the Top Safety Pick for their 2015 models.
On the other hand, IIHS singled out five vehicles that improved their ratings because they added automatic braking for 2016.
Click ahead for a closer look at those five models, and to see a full list of 2016's top-rated vehicles.
2016 Toyota Avalon
The Avalon, a Top Safety Pick last year, moves up a notch to Top Safety Pick Plus, given its addition of automatic braking for collision avoidance in the 2016 model. And that automatic braking technology got the top "Superior" rating in IIHS tests.
In day-to-day driving, reviewers surveyed by U.S. News praised the power and swift acceleration of Avalon's V-6 engine. They also liked its smooth ride and relatively nimble handling for a large family car. The Avalon's gas mileage is rated by the EPA for 21 MPG in city driving and 31 on the highway. Standard features include a rear-view camera, separate climate controls for driver and passenger, and an infotainment system with voice recognition.
2016 Toyota RAV4
Like the Avalon, the RAV4 has stepped up to a plus rating by adding automatic braking that got a Superior rating for front crash protection. Having only recently gone on sale, this 2016 small SUV has not yet been widely reviewed.
The redesigned RAV4 features a 2.5-liter, four-cylinder engine rated for 23 MPG in city driving, 30 on the highway. In the all-wheel drive version, those ratings drop to 22 city, 29 highway. Standard features include a rear-view camera and a USB connection for music and mobile phone.
2016 Nissan Maxima
The 2016 Maxima improved its performance in the difficult small-overlap crash test. And it added automatic braking-ranked Superior in IIHS tests to finish off its elevation to Top Safety Pick Plus.
When I test-drove the new Maxima, I liked its quick acceleration, thanks to the 300-horsepower, 3.5-liter V-6 engine that's standard on all versions of the Maxima. Even at highway speeds, hitting the gas pedal gives a swift, satisfying response. The Maxima is rated for 22 MPG in city driving, 30 on the highway.
2016 Volkswagen Passat
The updated 2016 Passat sedan improved its crash test ratings and added automatic braking. That system is rated "Advanced" -- the second-best classification but still good enough for a Top Safety Pick Plus. Test drivers praised the Passat for its comfortable ride, huge trunk and lots of passenger room.
The 1.8-liter four-cylinder turbocharged engine is rated for 25 MPG in city driving and 38 on the highway. The optional V-6 engine is rated 20 city, 28 highway. No diesel option is currently offered due to VW's regulatory tangle involving diesel engine emissions.
The 2016 Chrysler 200 improved its automatic braking to get a Superior grade and a Top Safety Pick Plus rating -- the only model from a Detroit-based brand to get that rating. Test drivers like the midsize sedan's precise steering and relatively nimble handling.
The base four-cylinder engine is rated for 23 MPG in city driving and 36 on the highway. Some reviewers feel this engine is underpowered and prefer the optional V-6, rated for 19 city, 32 highway.
List of 2016 IIHS Top Safety Pick Plus vehicles
Below is a list of the 48 models that earned a Top Safety Pick Plus rating. Toyota (TM) leads the list with nine top ratings. Chrysler's (FCAU) 200 is the only vehicle on the list made in the United States.
Volkswagen Golf ( 4-door hatchback and SportWagen models)
Volkswagen GTI (4-door models)
Audi A6 (built after January 2015)
Infiniti Q70 (does not apply to V8 4WD models)
Fiat 500X (built after July 2015)