The number of vehicles earning either of the Institute's two awards has jumped to 71 from 39 this time last year, giving consumers more choices for optimum protection in crashes. The number of winners in the top tier — Top Safety Pick+ — has increased by 11 for 2015, despite a tougher standard for front crash prevention.

"This is the third year in a row that we are giving automakers a tougher challenge to meet," says IIHS President Adrian Lund. "The quest for Top Safety Pick and Top Safety Pick+ awards is driving improvement in the small overlap front crash test and getting manufacturers to offer automatic braking technology on more and more vehicles."

While the bar has been raised for Top Safety Pick+, the criteria for Top Safety Pick are unchanged: a good or acceptable rating in the small overlap front test and a good rating in each of the Institute's four other crashworthiness evaluations — moderate overlap front, side, roof strength and head restraints (see "A higher standard: 39 vehicles meet new criteria for TOP SAFETY PICK, TOP SAFETY PICK+," Dec. 19, 2013). The 2015 Top Safety Pick+ designation is awarded to vehicles that meet those criteria and also have an available front crash prevention system that earns an advanced or superior rating.

For 2014, vehicles could qualify for TOP SAFETY PICK+ with only a basic rating for front crash prevention. Warning systems that meet the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's performance criteria but don't include autobrake qualify for a basic rating. For an advanced or superior rating, vehicles must stop or slow down without driver intervention before hitting a target in IIHS tests at 12 mph, 25 mph or both (see "First crash avoidance ratings under new test program: 7 midsize vehicles earn top marks," Sept. 27, 2013).

As a result of the change in criteria for 2015, 15 vehicles that qualified for 2014 TOP SAFETY PICK+ are now simply TOP SAFETY PICK winners. In all, there are 33 TOP SAFETY PICK+ winners and 38 TOP SAFETY PICK winners.

"Although forward collision warning on its own is a valuable feature, we decided to tighten our criteria to encourage manufacturers to offer autobrake. Systems that don't require a driver response to avoid or mitigate a crash have the most potential for reducing crashes," Lund says. "Nevertheless, the models that are losing their plus signs are still great choices for safety, as are all the TOP SAFETY PICK winners."

Meeting the small overlap challenge

Most vehicles produced in recent years have had little trouble with the Institute's moderate overlap front, side, roof strength and head restraint tests. The small overlap front test, which replicates what happens when the front corner of a vehicle collides with another vehicle or an object such as a tree or a utility pole, represented a new hurdle when it was introduced in 2012 (see "Small overlap crashes: New consumer-test program aims for even safer vehicles," Aug. 14, 2012). The test is difficult because the crash forces bypass most of a vehicle's energy-absorbing structure. But small overlap crashes are common in the real world, so the Institute wanted to push manufacturers to look for solutions.

For 2013, IIHS continued to award TOP SAFETY PICK to vehicles that earned good ratings in the four older tests, regardless of their small overlap ratings. Those with good or acceptable small overlap ratings earned TOP SAFETY PICK+. Only 13 vehicles managed it at the beginning of the award year (see "Family cars trump luxury models in rigorous new crash test; top performance earns 13 cars 2013 TOP SAFETY PICK+," Dec. 20, 2012).