Chinese-Owned Volvo Keeps its Crash Test Mojo

Last Updated Mar 24, 2011 11:04 AM EDT

When China's Geely Automobile bought Volvo last year, analysts wondered if Volvo's legendary reputation for safety would take a hit. The Chinese got an A, or at least an A-, on their first test. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety is announcing today that Volvo's newest model, the S60, is getting a "Top Safety Pick" rating after its crash tests. Four other Volvo models already have that ranking, and just one model tested, the S40, got less than top grades.

When it bought Volvo from Ford Motor last spring, Geely stressed that it planned to continue the safety emphasis, with the same managers running the company and cars still made in Sweden. Ford, which was shedding divisions as its Detroit competitors filed for bankruptcy, agreed to continue supplying engines, transmissions and other parts. Geely plans to open a Beijing factory to produce 300,000 Volvos for the Chinese market -- as many as are now made for the rest of the world.

The S60 sedan (below) introduced at last year's New York Auto Show, features Volvo's latest advance in safety technology, which stands out because it's focused on the people outside the car. The "Pedestrian Detection Full Auto Brake" system spots pedestrians in front of the car with cameras and radar and -- if the driver doesn't respond quickly enough -- slams on the brakes.

The Volvo S60 brings to 75 the number of Top Safety Picks the IIHS has chosen since it toughened its procedures last year. To get on the IIHS list a vehicle must get top marks for front, side, rear and rollover crashes. It also must have available electronic stability control, which helps prevent a rollover when a car begins to slide. The IIHS -- a private research organization funded by the insurance industry -- also added a tough requirement for roof strength that some vehicles initially had trouble meeting. For instance in the IIHS rankings, the Volvo S40 got second-level "acceptable" instead of top rating "good" for side impact and roof strength test but ranked good for front impact.

Here are some of the other highlights of the new top picks list:

Minivan Safety Smackdown In this family vehicle category where safety is all-important, Honda is boasting that its redesigned Odyssey is the only minivan to receive top grades from both the IIHS and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration crash test star ratings. NHTSA also has toughened its testing. In the rankings for 2011 models, the Honda Odyssey (right) get five stars overall. Its arch-rival Toyota Sienna, also an IIHS top safety pick, gets four stars overall from NHTSA.

Chrysler's Continued Comeback Chrysler, which was plagued by problems with reliability in the past, has emerged from bankruptcy effectively controlled by Italy's Fiat and is revamping most of its vehicles. The Dodge Charger and the Chrysler 300 (left) are among the most recent top safety picks. Four other models were on the previous list, including its strong-selling Jeep Grand Cherokee SUV (See 5 Reasons to Consider a Chrysler).

GM's Crossovers The Chevrolet Traverse, GMC Acadia, and Buick Enclave -- variations on the same General Motors mechanical platform -- all got the top safety pick rating. In this category of small SUVs, often bought by families as a substitute for a minivan, safety also is a crucial factor.

As regulations have tightened and crash tests have toughened, vehicles sold here have become safer. For instance, electronic stability control -- required by both IIHS and the federal government to achieve top ratings -- now is installed in 95% of 2011 cars. So as you kick tires in the showroom you should have plenty of safe choices.

Here is the list, in alphabetical order, of the new top safety picks:

Buick Enclave
Chevrolet Traverse
Chrysler 300
Dodge Charger
GMC Acadia
Honda Odyssey
Mazda 3
Mini Cooper Countryman
Volvo S60

Photos courtesy of the manufacturers

More from MoneyWatch:

  • Jerry Edgerton On Twitter»

    View all articles by Jerry Edgerton on CBS MoneyWatch»
    Jerry Edgerton, author of Car Shopping Made Easy, has been covering the car beat since Detroit companies dominated the U.S. market. The former car columnist for Money magazine and Washington correspondent for Business Week, Edgerton specializes in finding the best deals on wheels and offering advice on making your car last.