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Headlight performance ratings

NBC News on TV just reported on the IIHS (Insurance Institute for Highway Safety) ratings of headlight performance of many popular SUVs. Only a few such vehicles were in the top rank; most were in the lowest.

This is the kind of information that is very important, but hard to come by. I seem to recall that for a while Consumer Reports included headlight performance in their ratings, but they no longer do.

See the ratings at

It might be if NBC News had one shred of credibility left. Brian Williams has proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that NBC News has absolutely zero integrity.

There’s another factor: the bulb itself. Most headlights are still quartz-halogen, and while the beam pattern is established by the module design, the amount of light offered is highly dependent upon the actual bulb used. Sylvania offers five levels of performance from “standard” to “Silverstar Ultra”. Silverstar Ultra is far, far brighter than Standard. The tradeoff is in the rated operating hours… and the cost. I use Silverstar Ultras, and their operating hours rating is about 1/4 that of standard bulbs. A pair costs about four times the cost of standard bulbs. Multiply that by the fact that it takes four bulbs to equal the life of a standard bulb and that makes them 16X as expensive. To me it’s well worth it. But some may balk.

The problem is that many newer cars and SUV’s use HID headlights. You don’t get to replace the bulbs for better light. If the reflectors and focus are poor then your road illumination is terrible. My Mazda 6 has pretty good lights (HID) with a system to keep them focused properly, even when heavy loads change the suspension geometry. Some of these newer cars have really lousy illumination due to poor design.

There’s a big difference in headlight performance? Is it just something w/me? I don’t see much difference in the headlights of the cars I drive, even the newer models when I rent a car. My 70’s Ford truck has the old style sealed beam headlights and those work fine as far as I can tell. I drive the truck at night frequently, and its headlight performance has never crossed my mind. What am I missing?

It is more than the brightness that counts. The illuminated field matters. The one gripe against my 2014 Camry is how the headlights, especially the low beams, have a sharp cutoff of the top part of the lighted field. So when driving on a downslope the lights aim into the ground and fail to light the road far enough ahead. Yes, I have had the adjustment checked; it is precisely on normal aim per design specs. So the design is poor.

That “sharp cutoff” is now mandated. The idea is to prevent blinding oncoming drivers with today’s headlamps, much brighter than they were in the old days.

There really is a big difference in headlights (the lamps plus the module design AND location). I find a big problem with the new oversized pickup trucks having their headlights so high. When the bed’s loaded it becomes an even bigger problem. NHTSA was looking at lowering the height requirement, but for some reason never did.

I don’t have a lot of exposure to the new LED matrices, but I have my doubts. I suspect it’s just an expensive way to gain .000001 mpg, possibly at the expense of visibility. :smile: As more information comes to the forefront, I may change my mind.

Aren’t there govt. standards that every car has to meet?
This seems like a case where the feds need to tighten the leash.

Yup. The chopping off of the top of the beam patterns on new cars is a tightening of the leash. They were going to tighten the leash on trucks’ headlight height, but didn’t.