Headlights Still Largely Suck, Just Not As Much As Last Year

Steph Willems
by Steph Willems
headlights still largely suck just not as much as last year

A collective groan must have echoed through the automotive industry a couple of years back, after the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety began testing headlight performance. Early results showed that most headlights, even those on expensive vehicles, fell well short of optimal performance. Most fell short of acceptable performance.

Since then, improvements have begun — slowly, but surely. It’s in an automaker’s best interest to slap a couple of bright peepers on the front of their vehicles from a PR and marketing perspective, but there’s cost issues to be considered. Still, no vehicle can take home that coveted Top Safety Pick+ rating without good headlights.

In its 2018 testing, some 32 models offered standard or available headlights worthy of a “good” rating. That’s out of 165 models.

Not a great ratio, though it’s better than in 2016, when just two out of 95 models offered good headlights. The writer can’t help but notice that his personal vehicle is not among these top-ranked 2018 models, but that doesn’t come as a shock — headlight performance took a backseat to MSRP reduction when he walked into his local GM dealer.

This year, the best-available headlights on 58 new cars rate an “acceptable” rating, which is the institute’s version of “sorta good” or “pretty alright.” Compared to 2016, the number of new vehicles with headlights (of all types) rating a “poor” is just over 25 percent, down from nearly 50 percent. Those with available lights rating “good” climb to a tiny fraction to roughly 20 percent.

While that sounds like impressive progress, of the 424 separate headlight systems among the 195 models, 67 percent earned a rating of marginal or poor. Just because a fancy LED unit is available on an upper trim level, or as part of a pricey package, doesn’t mean drivers are going to drive away with those lamps leading the way. Two-thirds of all new headlamps still blow. Meanwhile, the IIHS isn’t pleased that the majority of drivers are faced with significant additional costs in order to get into a safer vehicle.

Of this diverse group of contestants, just two models carry “good” headlights at every trim level. Those models are the Genesis G90 and Lexus NX. Remember, it’s not just overall dimness working against a headlamp’s rating — there’s also glare for oncoming drivers to be considered. Some 21 models manage to not fall below an “acceptable” rating in base or high-zoot trim. These models include the two aforementioned vehicles, as well as the Chevrolet Volt, Genesis G80, Toyota Camry, and Mercedes-Benz E-Class, which carry good headlights on upper trims and acceptable ones at lower price points.

The rest of the high-ranked group, carrying only acceptable lamps, include four Acuras (MDX, RDX, TLX, and old-generation RLX), BMW’s X2 and X5, the Jeep Cherokee, Lexus IS, Tesla Model 3, five Toyotas (Corolla, Highlander, Prius, Prius Prime, Sienna), and the Volvo XC60.

At the bottom of the list are 43 2018 models that only rate a “poor,” regardless of trim or headlight choice. Among its members are a model that saw a complete overhaul for 2019 (Chevrolet’s Silverado 1500 crew and extended cab), one that’s already dead (Volkswagen Tiguan Limited), and six more destined for the grave (Ford Taurus and Fusion, Buick LaCrosse, Chevrolet Impala and Cadillac ATS and CTS).

While we won’t list them all, here’s a selection of worst offenders: Mercedes-Benz C-Class, Ford F-150 crew and extended cab), all three Honda Civic bodystyles, Chevrolet Bolt, Malibu, and Colorado, Dodge Charger, GMC Terrain and Canyon, Jeep Renegade, Nissan Frontier, and Toyota C-HR.

Oh, and the Hyundai Accent, as well as the Volkswagen Passat. Then there’s the Infiniti QX60. And the Kia Niro Plug-in, Honda Fit, Ford Edge and Explorer, Mercedes-Benz CLA, Dodge Journey and Grand Caravan, Fiat 500X, Chrysler 300, Audi Q3, Toyota 4Runner, and Toyota Yaris iA.

Hey, look — we did list them all.

[Image: Ford, Lexus, Honda]

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2 of 21 comments
  • Cactuar Cactuar on Dec 13, 2018

    My comment awaiting moderation (why?). Will repost it with the bad words filtered: It would be awesome if automotive journalists would, you know, actually do journalism stuff. Why doesn’t anyone demand answers to the companies making cars with *****y headlights instead of just parroting what the IIHS says? Where’s the deep reporting about the poor state of stock headlights on cars? We’re car guys and we don’t even know why the hell NEW lights are so pitiful. How aware do you think the average consumer is? I have a feeling that the industry in general is working hard to ignore the issue. Option packages that include LED’s and other fancy lights mean big margins, and no one wants to see those go away.

  • Speedlaw Speedlaw on Dec 13, 2018

    I don't get it...this isn't new. My first Gen Scirocco (I'm old) had Ciebie Z Beams, four rounds. Amazing light, even if I had to take them out every year to pass NJ inspection. I had a Jeep with H4 7 inch Squares. Excellent light, primitive truck. Modern era. HID projectors from a 2003 BMW. Excellent. Shutter for high/low beams 2008 HID projectors low with halogen highs...Acura...Excellent. No shutter for Low, always on. 2010 Caddy...HID projectors, same as the 2003 BMW. Excellent, and swivel to follow the road. Not a gimmick. Shutter for high/low again. My ace of base VW Jetta. For 17k you get a four light system, with the separate High/low bulbs. I'm used to the swivel now, but still adequate,...not bad. I am curious to see how the current MB and HD light systems are..

  • Marvin Im a current owner of a 2012 Golf R 2 Door with 5 grand on the odometer . Fun car to drive ! It's my summer cruiser. 2006 GLI with 33,000 . The R can be money pit if service by the dealership. For both cars I deal with Foreign car specialist , non union shop but they know their stuff !!! From what I gather the newer R's 22,23' too many electronic controls on the screen, plus the 12 is the last of the of the trouble free ones and fun to drive no on screen electronics Maze !
  • VoGhost I'm clearly in the minority here, but I think this is a smart move. Apple is getting very powerful, and has slowly been encroaching on the driving experience over the last decade. Companies like GM were on the verge of turning into mere hardware vendors to the Apple brand. "Is that a new car; what did you get?" "I don't remember. But it has the latest Apple OS, which is all I care about." Taking back the driving experience before it was too late might just be GM's smartest move in a while.
  • VoGhost Can someone Christian explain to me what this has to do with Jesus and bunnies?
  • Del My father bought GM cars in the 60's, but in 1971 he gave me a used Datsun (as they were called back then), and I'm now in my 70's and am happy to say that GM has been absent from my entire adult life. This article makes me gladder than ever.
  • TheEndlessEnigma That's right GM, just keep adding to that list of reasons why I will never buy your products. This, I think, becomes reason number 69, right after OnStar-Cannot-Be-Disabled-And-It-Comes-Standard-Whether-Or-Not-You-Want-It and Screw-You-American-Car-Buyer-We-Only-Make-Trucks-And-SUVs.