By on December 12, 2018

2018 F-150 Power Stroke Diesel, Image: Ford

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.

2018 Lexus NX front – Image: Lexus

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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21 Comments on “Headlights Still Largely Suck, Just Not As Much As Last Year...”

  • avatar

    This is a long, ongoing issue. I have had two cars with poor headlights, a Mercedes M class and a Dodge Journey, both separated by about 15 years in build time. Both vehicles have had headlight upgrades as the light performance outside of urban areas was pathetic. The Mercedes I took as a sign that most European roads, including rural are well lit, and distances between towns was short and the need for prolonged high beam use was limited. The Dodge I was disappointed in as I thought that lighting was/should have been well advanced by 2015.Both cars, prior to upgrades, had short “throw” distance compared to the locals. Still with the move to driverless cars (Ha!) lights will be a thing of the past as the vehicle won’t need them.

    • 0 avatar

      I dunno, I recently got back from a trip to England with the wife where we rented a car and drove around the countryside. I would describe the lighting on their country roads as “non-existent”. Everyone used high beams by default and turned them down only when passing by traffic in the other direction.

  • avatar

    An auto switch (either auto-on, or auto-dimming/turn your high beams off) would be sufficient for a number of the people I observe on a daily basis. Although that brings up a peeve of mine.

    Then can everybody can it with the bright blues, and the twinkling lights? Headache on wheels.

  • avatar

    Maybe because the last car I owned – a 2009 MINI Clubman – had such awful (halogen) headlights, I think my 2014 Mustang’s are just fabulous. Not many streetlights in my neighborhood, so the longer reach and wider / left and right spread makes me a much happier driver. Not sure if these projector headlights annoy other cars.

  • avatar

    Has the IIHS been leaning on the government to make Matrix LED lights US DOT legal? If not, that’s a bit hypocritical.

  • avatar

    A long time friend likely helped/worked on those headlamps on that photo of the Ford. Ford designs how they want it to look, and the engineers like him make it fit into acceptance under the FMVSS

  • avatar

    I drive four hours in the pitch black each week through moose-infested countryside. I’ve started a game where I pick the vehicles with the most blinding headlights, remember what they were, then look them up when I get home.

    Without a doubt the worst headlights for glare are the new Silverado – they’re dangerous to other road users. The latest F150 is barely any better.

    Given how much driving I do it’s important to have good headlights in my next car – and I’ve been actively researching. I’m leaning towards Subaru, their LED lights are rated excellent on most of their line (shame their Halogen suck). Subaru also helps with the steep hills, heavy snow etc…

    I’d hoped the new headlight rating would be a kick up the ass for manufacturers – but they seem to have focused on their LED lights so one trim in the range gets a good score, rather than improving across the board. I don’t buy loaded cars, I typically like base + a package, or the second trim up. But I shouldn’t die in a moose collision because I don’t like leather seats, because electric seats are pointless, and I can’t be assed with a “moonroof”. $5k for a trim upgrade for a set of headlights that work is pretty unpalatable.

    So, if going for a decent mainstream brand, it looks like Toyota bubbles towards the top.

    Oh, and as a note, legislation should be passed that when you do a stupid 6″ lift to your Silverado your headlights should be adjusted too. Those things are higher than the headlights on semis. I guess it’s the American way though, it’s about your right to drive the biggest ****est truck and kill other people, and no damned government is going to tell you not to.

  • avatar

    So it isn’t just me that seems to notice that the new Fords, the Super Duty’s in particular, are beyond blinding at night?

  • avatar

    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 shitty 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.

  • avatar

    If you are driving an actual car, pretty much every truck or full sized SUV has blinding lights as their hoods now come to the top of the average cars roof. Hoping that each and every one of them never receives all 5 stars.

    • 0 avatar

      This. When I drive my car at night I think to myself, “reason 84 why sedans are dying, headlights of CUV/SUV/trucks shine right in your face at night because you don’t sit up in a high position.”

    • 0 avatar

      I’m actually in large SUV’s almost exclusively and I still seem to get blinded by too many new vehicles. Maybe my eyes are more sensitive, but as others here have stated the SD Fords are a major problem, but also almost every newer Audi and Lexus seems crazy bright. And, how are those LED light bars not more regulated (and illegal) for on-road use everywhere?

      I tend to be anti-regulation, but in the ’70s, headlight (and auxiliary) lighting were all heavily regulated by the Feds. Obviously it’s still regulated to some extent, but how was it allowed to happen that we’re all getting blinded whenever we drive at night now?

    • 0 avatar

      Here’s another one – self “dimming” rear-view mirrors, that hardly dim at all! Now needed more than ever, if there’s an F150 behind you. I’m glad to have an old-fashioned flip-switch in my new Fusion. But usually the higher trim levels of most cars include the self dimming mirror, like it or not.

  • avatar

    Lights in my SS sedan are the best lights I’ve ever used, they truly make nighttime driving clear. My 17 Silverado on the other hand has mediocre at best light, even brights don’t significantly help the visibility.

    SS sedan lights are HID
    Silverado lights are LED

    • 0 avatar

      I should add while they are mediocre they are excellent compared to many halogen equipped vehicles. So it’s really only a comparison to the SSs lights

      • 0 avatar

        Sweet! Another SS Sedan owner here, and I feel the same way. Best OEM lighting setup compared to my own vehicles. I have aftermarket LEDs in my Subaru and they don’t throw as much light down the road as the SS does.

        Hope you’re on the forums as well as FB groups!

  • avatar
    Daniel J

    I love the adaptive headlights on my new Mazda 6 reserve. However they are too bright. I can’t see anything past the falloff even on a typically lit road. With my old Mazda I could. People really underestimate their night adapted vision. On a poor little or urban road I’m having to use my brights far more often.

  • avatar

    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.

  • avatar

    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..

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