The subpar headlights of small SUVs

Last Updated Jul 13, 2016 10:57 AM EDT

How effective are the headlights on your recent-model small SUV? Not very, according to tests done by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

The IIHS, which also does crash-test ratings, tested the headlights on 21 current models. Of these, none got the top "good" rating, and only four ranked as "acceptable." The remainder were graded as "marginal" or "poor."

The Institute said in a statement that federal standards for headlights that automakers must meet are set in lab tests and don't reflect real-world driving conditions. "Manufacturers aren't paying enough attention to the actual on-road performance of this basic equipment," said Matthew Brumbelow, IIHS senior research engineer.

He noted that headlight performance is important because about half of U.S. traffic deaths happen either after dark or around dawn or dusk.

The headlight results for small SUVs, the largest-selling automotive category this year, were even worse than an earlier test for midsize sedans, which also performed poorly. IIHS tests headlights after dark both for how well they illuminate the road on straightaways and curves, and whether their low beams project glare to oncoming cars.

The best-performing headlights in the small SUV group -- though rated only acceptable -- belonged to a new model, the 2016 Mazda CX-3 (pictured above), but they're available only on that model's high-end Grand Touring version. These headlights adapt to curves and have high-beam assist, which shifts to low beams when other cars are oncoming. The worst headlights belonged to the new-for-2016 Honda HR-V.

Besides the CX-3, the other SUVs with headlights rated acceptable are the 2017 Ford Escape, the 2016 Honda CR-V and the 2016 Hyundai Tucson.

While 2015, 2014 and earlier years of these same models weren't tested, it's unlikely that their headlights were any better than the current versions, the IIHS said.

What does this mean if you're shopping for -- or already own -- a small SUV?

  • If you're a shopper, look at the rankings of the 21 SUV models. While only one of many decision points, the headlights could tip your choice between a model rated acceptable and one rated poor.
  • If you plan to buy a small SUV in the future, check on the IIHS overall safety ratings as you start shopping. Starting with 2017 models, any vehicle will have to have a good or acceptable rating for headlights -- along with top crash test results -- to get the best overall safety rating of Top Safety Pick Plus.
  • If you already own an SUV that has poor headlight ratings, "owners shouldn't worry that these small SUVs are unsafe," said IIHS spokesman Russ Rader. But when driving at night, slow down and be aware of your headlights' limitations. "To compensate, there is one simple thing that drivers can do to make night driving safer: Use your high beams more," said Rader. An IIHS study showed that of cars on roads with no other vehicles nearby, only 18 percent put on their high beams, which illuminate the road ahead much better.

Using high beams more is good advice whether you drive an SUV, pickup or sedan. The type of vehicle doesn't determine how well your headlights work.

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    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.