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Cooley On Cars
Smarter Driver: How tough are your car bumpers?Bumpers have come a long way since the days of chrome; now they are basically hidden inside the body of the car. CNET's Brian Cooley explains the new standards and what you need to know about bumper toughness.
If you're into cars, 1973 was not a good year. The OPEC oil embargo had us waiting in long lines just to buy gas on either odd or even-numbered days, but even worse is what happened to bumpers. Starting in fall of '72 the 1973 cars were the first to accommodate new federal standards that said a car's bumper had to withstand a 5-mile-an-hour front impact or 2-1/2-mile-an-hour back impact without major damage. So bumpers got big, jutting, and ugly overnight. To this day, many vintage car collectors draw the line at 72's. Now 40 years later everything is different. The old chrome bumpers like on this Lotus, they're gone. This was basically strong trim. Today the bumper is a tougher piece but invisible hidden underneath the cover that's integrated into the shape of the body. But also the standards were cut way back in 1982. Cars now only have to survive a 2-1/2-mile-an-hour front impact or just a 1-1/2-mile-an-hour bumper corner impact. All this low speed testing is important not because it saves lives but because it saves you money. How well a bumper performs in slow impacts will give you an idea how much you'll pay to repair the damage after and it varies a lot. The IIHS tests bumpers with a 6-mile-an-hour full impact and a 3-mile-an-hour corner impact. Those full impacts by the way are the lion's share in the real world. The cost to repair that impact damage on similar cars can vary wildly. According to IIHS, a full frontal on a 2011 Ford Focus bumper results in just $588 damage. Same impact on a 2011 Hyundai Elantra, almost 5 grand and a similar pattern continues across other test modes. Average all-test damage together and it's almost 4x more expensive from one car to the other. So clearly when you're buying a new or used car, it pays to double check these bumper impact ratings and what it cost afterwards, but know you're fighting a bit of an uphill battle for 3 reasons. Most bumpers suck. The IIHS finds most bumper designs simply don't go far enough past the very slim minimum standards to be tough enough, high enough, or tall enough. Blame cost control but also the fact that the best bumper would probably not be the best-looking bumper. Bumper toughness regulations were largely gutted in the early 80's and so far have not bounced back. And finally pickups, SUV's and mini vans they get a pass on the federal height standard unlike your passenger car which as you can see quickly moved the discussion from how well your bumper performs to how well your headlights and hood are gonna perform. That gets expensive in a hurry. I never parallel park next to one of these. Your bumper is your first line of defense between you and the most common thing you'll pay for to body shop, this kind of impact. You can see this one gave its life for the cause. Measure the effectiveness of these in dollars. Avoid common bumper-related damage by parking carefully around non-height-compliant vehicles, trucks, and SUV's. And consider low-speed forward-collision avoidance tech in your next car. Depending on the car that technology could pay for itself if it saves you just one low-speed bumper impact.