Watching hours of modern crash test videos from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety might lead you to believe that most modern cars are relatively safe, with some exceptions and a few outliers. This is no coincidence, as every vehicle's safety structure was designed for passengers and pedestrians passing on the street, dictated by evolving government standards. But such high standards weren't always the case.
And what better way to show the evolution of crash test standards than by a video of every BMW 3-Series generation in action? From the original E21 3-Series to the newest G20 version, every generation is put through its paces in a standardized crash test, most often the European New Car Assessment Program. This crash test is a voluntary one that provides automakers with a result on the consumer-focused Euro NCAP comprehensive five-star safety rating system, similar to IIHS testing here in the US. This NCAP rating system didn't start until 1996, meaning the E21 and E30 generations weren't tested under the same criteria.
How did the models fare? Well, it's a bit more complex than the dramatic test videos show, especially given the nearly five decades between the oldest and the newest models. For starters, airbags weren't available in the E21 or E30 series, meaning front-seat occupants regularly hit their faces on the steering wheel or dashboard. Additionally, the forward crumple zones on the first three generations (E21, E30, and E36) show drastic deformation at crash speeds of 30 mph or 35 mph.
Overall, the E30 series received a three-star rating from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, with the model receiving moderate praise at the time. Unfortunately, the E21 series doesn't have an official safety rating on the NHTSA or Euro NCAP site, though there is additional footage of the rear impact test here. Both of the early 3-Series generations had federally required diving board bumpers in the US, elongated pieces that stretched out to allow for the lights to remain intact during low-speed accidents. These were not particularly attractive, nor has this technology fared well when challenged by present-day models in crashes.
Results from the 1997 BMW 3-Series Euro NCAP crash test paint a better picture of the gruesome example seen on video, as the model only achieved one and a half out of five stars as a safety rating. Largely due to what testers called "an unstable cabin," the E36 generation was found to have folded its A-pillars during the crash, in addition to a high likelihood of facial trauma against the steering wheel in spite of its new airbag system.
Moving up to the E46 generation, the outcome of occupants improved greatly, with the 2001 model year receiving a four-star rating. Tester comments explain that its structural rigidity and attention to head and neck protection showed great improvement over previous years. However, pedestrian safety was seemingly overlooked with the E46 design, seeing as the model received a one-star pedestrian safety rating thanks to its minimal exterior impact cushioning. In fact, the E36 generation showed more attention to pedestrian safety than the E46 did, at least by Euro NCAP testing standards.
Unsurprisingly, the popular sedan continued to improve its safety rating as the years went on, even when testing criteria changed. Every 3-Series since 2005 (E90, F30, G20) has received a five-star occupant safety rating from Euro NCAP, largely due to the standardization of airbags, structural bolstering, and improved seatbelt restraints. Pedestrian safety continued to fall short until the F30 chassis generation was released in 2012, as pedestrian safety standards steadily ramped up into the 21st century.
As safety standards continue to improve, we have regulators and testing agencies like the NHTSA, IIHS, and Euro NCAP to thank for advancing testing criteria year after year. The difference is clear from the 1970s through the early 2000s and into the present day, even beyond the 3-Series video. As we move into an EV world, these agencies have also started to account for extra battery weight in crash tests, ensuring that advances in the automotive industry aren't at the expense of safety.
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