DN Staff

October 6, 1997

12 Min Read
Safety:Does it sell cars?

How important is safety when it comes to buying a new car? We posed this question to two Design News readers/engineers who were in the market for a 1997 model. Their observations may surprise you, especially when one of the vehicles is a convertible and the other a sports car.

SAAB 900: No sob story by W.G. Cook, Technical Manager
Valmet, Hudson Falls, NY

Long Adirondack winters mean climbing snow-covered, twisting mountain roads that rise a thousand feet in a mile to our home. But I like a car that's fun to drive. Dilemma: fun car or safe car?

I tested the Porsche Boxster, the BMW Z3, and looked at (there were none to drive) the Mercedes SLK. Both fun cars. Then I drove a SAAB 900 SE Turbo convertible. Here is a car that is really winter worthy, while offering four-passenger comfort. Better yet, it had an impressive list of safety features, plus SAAB has a corporate history of building safe cars.

The car comes equipped with all the safety attributes today's drivers seem to expect: ABS, four-wheel disc brakes, dual airbags, daytime running lights, and auto tensioning seat belts. It also includes components pioneered by SAAB: headlight washers/wipers (1970); electrically heated seats (1971), which help reduce driving fatigue; and side-impact door beams (1972).

However, as an engineer, I especially appreciate the importance of body design. SAAB has built a stiff passenger compartment surrounded by crumple zones. I don't have the figures for the convertible, but the sedan version of this car meets the federal side-impact standards by a factor of two. I gave the car the "acid test" for any convertible--jacking up one wheel about 10 or 12 inches and seeing how the doors closed. Result: They closed just as they had with all wheels on the ground.

Pluses and minuses. As with any vehicle, there are some "likes" and "dislikes." I like the three-layer power top. It's absolutely watertight and very quiet, even at high speed. The rear seat folds flat, creating an enormous trunk for a convertible. It also locks in the upright position to secure the trunk. The doors have deadbolt locks, which, once locked from inside, can only be unlocked with a key.

In SAAB fashion, the ignition key is on the floor between the seats protected by a heavy-gauge steel plate. Each spark plug has a directly coupled ignition coil that cleans the plug each time the engine is shut off. The instrument panel features a "black panel" mode, which, at the push of a button, shuts off all the instruments except the speedometer to reduce glare at night. Should anything change, like low fuel level, that signal reactivates.

Now for the downside. The rear window is very difficult to see through, especially when backing up. This, combined with the high deck lid, creates a large blind spot directly behind the car. The addition of a reverse beeper would make drivers feel more secure when backing up with any children around. The eight-way power seats, although very comfortable, don't match the car's cornering performance. With the seat belt on, I find myself sliding around in the seat on hard corners.

Even so, the SAAB is the best assembled new car I have ever owned. Everything worked--not one loose screw, no misaligned trim. It was almost perfect, except for a small dent in the door that I discovered with the first wash job. The dealer cheerfully repaired this, even leasing a car for me, as they had no service loaners available at the time.

There's another good reason for my purchase of a SAAB, aside from the safety aspect. SAABs are reliable, often running 200,000 to 300,000 miles. And they continue to look new for years. In fact, people still wonder when I got my new car, referring to my 1989 SAAB 900 Turbo coupe. Most important, my SAAB is fun to drive. As I journey to work in the morning, I think of the SAAB slogan, "Find your own road," and smile a lot.

Eclipse: style before function

by Brian W. LaBorde, Design Engineer Bear Archery, Gainesville, FL

Anew bride and a new car. That proved to be a winning combination for me. The former prompted the purchase of the latter, a 1997 Mitsubishi Eclipse.

My new wife needed a new car, so we decided to trade in my car, a Toyota Supra Turbo that I loved, but had become excessively costly to repair. When she finishes school and gets a job, we will trade her car in for a new one. Until then, we share.

I made an extensive search prior to the purchase. The car had to be small, easy to handle, sporty, and in the $18,000 to $25,000 range. We settled on a few styles and researched their history. Mitsubishi had a solid history, being sold as the Dodge Laser before wearing the Mitsubishi logo. This was important from the standpoint of better availability of parts, since there are more cars on the road. Moreover, models with a longer history tend to have the bugs worked out.

Styling played an important role in our decision, even above functionality. We didn't want a family vehicle, as we have no kids, or a sport utility or other specialty vehicle. Since it was to become my wife's car, she had the decision on power and looks, but I maintained "veto" power on mechanical issues.

Although safety was a secondary consideration, the Eclipse has a few specific safety features. Most prominent is the front airbags for driver and passenger. This was important to me as my bride and I tend to travel together quite a bit. Someone with children would no doubt have concerns about airbag deployment, and the fact that the rear seats are less than spacious when it comes to using baby seats.

The Eclipse does come with anti-lock brakes as an option; I didn't order them. However, I did have them on my Supra and they saved by butt on more than one occasion. I suppose my rationale on the Eclipse was that it was so much lighter and has four-wheel disc brakes, so it would stop on a dime. My recommendation for anyone considering a new car with safety in mind is to get the anti-lock brakes.

Another safety feature has to be the Eclipse's exceptional lighting. With the driving lights on, night visibility is very good. In fact, there is almost no difference between high beams (where the driving lights automatically shut off) and the low beams. Since I tend to do most of my long-distance driving at night, this is an important safety feature.

From a styling standpoint, the Eclipse has an interesting exterior--a very round, smooth look. The front and rear "bumpers" are hidden in the round features. This gives the vehicle an aggressive, sporty look. The very low front cowling tends to hit almost any parking bumper, so you have to stop before contacting them to avoid scrapes on the bottom of the cowling. The car does stand out with its distinctive bump on the hood that serves only as cosmetic relief.

One new feature for the '97 GS model is the rims. With the low profile wheels and five slender spikes, they give the car an extra-sporty look. There is so much air in the rim that you can check your brake pads on the four disc brakes without removing a lug.

Mitsubishi left most of the sporty styling outside. Aside from the "cockpit" styling of the front cabin, the inside compares favorably with other cars in this price range. The seats don't hold you as snugly as my Supra's did, but they do have an adjustable lumbar support. In a sports car, where drivers tend to push the performance, a seat that holds you in place is an important safety factor. The Eclipse seat adjusts from front to rear, allowing for someone with long legs to drive long distances comfortably.

Most of the controls are easy to find and reach. The cruise control is in an ideal position on the right back side of the steering wheel, just where your fingers would be. The gauges are large and easy to read at a glance, an aid in keeping your eyes on the road.

One complaint is the cup holder. In today's hustle and bustle world, people tend to drive to work with a cup of coffee. Many coffee cups tend to be larger than the holders, leaving you to hold the cup, which could spill. This distracts you from the road and you may swerve and hit the curb, or worse. As I am writing this, the Eclipse is at the shop acquiring a new front tire that my bride blew out in this exact scenario. So, something as simple as effective cup holders could mean a safer car.

The back hatch area has a very effective net that stretches across the middle rear of the "trunk"--another little safety feature. The net, actually two nets in a V shape, can hold things like soda bottles so they don't roll around.

The Eclipse wasn't trouble free. The "check engine light" kept coming on. After three attempts to solve the problem, the dealer finally tracked it down. The solution, however, kept the car in the shop for 27 days during the first three months of ownership.

With the exception of the initial problems that the dealer addressed, the car has been exceptional. It drives well, with no surprises in handling, braking, etc. In fact, I like the car enough to consider another Mitsubishi.

Foam advances race-car safety

Advancements in vehicle technology and safety often have been passed on to the average driver from lessons learned in racing--where risks are greater, speeds higher, road conditions more extreme, and mistakes costlier. The impetus for one such advancement occurred at the 1994 Grand Prix of San Marino (Imola, Italy), where two drivers tragically died in crashes.

Immediately following the deadly accidents, the governing body of world motorsports, the Federation of Internationale de l'Automobile (FIA), took steps to investigate motorsports safety issues and establish new driver safety regulations. The resulting technical mandates went into effect progressively during the next year.

Not only did the FIA's investigative committee formulate changes to the external design of Formula 1 race cars, it also specified the use of an energy-absorbing material for cockpit headrests. The material: CONFORTM foam, a highly-damped polyurethane material made by E-A-R Specialty Composites (Indianapolis).

"The foam can absorb the same amount of energy in a thinner section of material than with other traditional foams," says Jeff Hamer, E-A-R's manager of applications engineering. "It's less likely to bottom out--compress to its maximum--because of its unique properties."

Not only does CONFOR foam dissipate mechanical energy, it also redistributes a driver's weight equally to relieve vascular constriction at body pressure points. This helps reduce fatigue. And the foam's thermal-forming behavior allows it to mold and remold itself fluidly to the driver's body shape.

Rigorous research. The FIA put CONFOR through extensive testing at the Motor Industry Research Association (MIRA) laboratories in the United Kingdom. During MIRA's impact tests, headrests made from the material reportedly helped reduce driver's head g-forces associated with deceleration when compared with the standard headrest. Moreover, the cockpit height was raised to provide greater protection during side impacts.

The FIA-specified CONFOR CF-42 headrest has a minimum thickness of 75 mm, covering surface areas of 400 mm behind the driver's helmet and along each side. It is the first thing the driver's helmet comes into contact with during impact. Even if the movement of the driver's head significantly compresses the CF-42 foam at any point, his helmet must not make contact with any structural part of the car, per the new FIA regulation.

CONFOR foam's performance in the MIRA tests satisfied the FIA that the material could help meet Formula 1's safety challenges. The governing body mandated its use in all F1 headrests in 1995. But the foam's use in the racing world didn't end there.

Jumping on the bandwagon. Ohio-based Team Rahal, racing the CART circuit, initiated the use of CONFOR foam about the same time as the FIA mandate. The team quickly discovered how easily the material could be used in association with other materials to augment component performance. The team's Kevlar(R)-lined headrests are now wrapped with an outside layer of CONFOR foam for added comfort and shock absorption.

"The foam's memory is what really made us go with the product," says production manager Joe Strausbaugh. "We were impressed with the foam's resiliency and low-compression set." A choice of stiffnesses also allowed the team to customize headrests for drivers Bobby Rahal and Bryan Herta to their individual comfort levels. "Knowing that we have the foam in our cars in case we have a bad crash makes both drivers and the team feel safer," Strausbaugh adds. "If a driver is comfortable, he'll be more competitive."

Added safety. The seat is another critical component where the foam plays an added safety/comfort role. Kim Green, general manager of Team Green (Indianapolis) speaks from experience.

Team Green driver Parker Johnstone uses a CONFOR-filled seat designed to fit the contours of his body. It holds him in a better driving position on banked, constant-left oval tracks. "Parker's car is virtually tilted all the way around the track, and the seat helps him remain comfortable for 200 to 500 miles," says Green.

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