Automakers would like to convince you that headlights keep getting better, and that more expensive luxury vehicles and their headlight upgrades are worth the premium, delivering better vision and visibility. Yet if you’re thinking that those top-technology headlamps you opted for with your latest new car aren't giving you a sharper image, you’re likely not alone.
And now there’s data to back that up. In a first-ever headlight test from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), the organization found lots of room for improvement.
Only one model, the Toyota Prius V, earns the organization’s top "good" rating for headlights; and many of the systems rated “poor” by the IIHS are those of expensive luxury models—like the base system in the BMW 3-Series, which was rated the worst.
2016 Honda Accord halogen headlamps - IIHS rated
2016 Mercedes-Benz C-Class halogen headlamps - IIHS rated
2016 Honda Accord Sedan
2016 Mercedes-Benz C450 AMG Sport
Among 31 different vehicles, the group tested 82 different headlamp systems (because many models offer multiple headlight combinations depending on option packages or trim levels). And of those 82 versions, more than half (44) earned a poor rating.
According to the IIHS, current federal standards for headlights allow a tremendous variation in the amount of real-world illumination the lamp units actually provide. Meanwhile, effective headlamps can make a substantial difference in the chances of accidents and fatalities.
The difference could be illuminating—and life-saving
Some of the best LED lamps on the market performed quite well. The Prius V, with its LED low-beam lamps, would give the driver enough time to identify a roadside hazard at 70 mph and brake to a stop, while the IIHS says a model with halogen lamps would need to go 50 mph to avoid a crash.
2015 Toyota Prius V
That said, LED lamps aren’t always better. The Honda Accord earned an “acceptable” rating with its basic halogen lights. An optional LED system didn’t test as well.
And despite earlier research suggesting otherwise, the IIHS found that curve-adaptive systems don’t always deliver better visibility in real-world situations, such as those in the test environment. Even with adaptive headlamps, the Cadillac ATS, Kia Optima, and Mercedes-Benz C-Class earned “poor” ratings.
The IIHS tested headlamps as they were received from the dealer; prior to delivery, some vehicles might have been adjusted at the dealer level for headlight aim, although the organization notes that some manufacturers advise against consumers doing so.
In determining final ratings, data from the low beams and from straight-ahead travel were given more weight than the high-beam and curve results.
Watch the video below for more on the tests and results, and click through to see the entire list of ratings thus far.
These ratings from the IIHS apply to the best available headlight system for each model tested:
Toyota Prius V
Honda Accord 4-door
Chevrolet Malibu Limited (fleet)