My window at Esurance overlooks one of San Francisco’s greatest streets — the Embarcadero. Stretching along the Bay from Fisherman’s Wharf to AT&T Park, it’s always busy with tourists, bikes, pedicabs, parking enforcement officers, and a stop-and-go stream of commuters on their way to the Bay Bridge. It’s an iconic stretch of road and a prime setup for a rear-end collision.

Fortunately, more and more vehicles are available with front crash prevention systems, and studies have shown they work. The Highway Loss Data Institute found fewer property damage liability claims for vehicles with forward collision warning systems and autonomous braking.

But, not all systems are created equal. Now that it’s clear front crash prevention technologies are effective, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) has developed a new test program to see how various systems compare.

Crash prevention technologies

There are 2 main types of front crash prevention systems: forward collision warning and autonomous braking (autobrake). A forward collision warning system alerts the driver when it detects the vehicle is about to collide with the car in front. Though the system doesn’t cause the vehicle to slow down or stop, it’s sometimes combined with autobrake.

Autobrake systems are designed to prevent or reduce the impact of a rear-end collision by slowing down or stopping the vehicle if the driver doesn’t react in time. The higher-rated vehicles in the IIHS tests were able to brake for stopped and slowly moving vehicles.

How the IIHS rates crash prevention technology

Unlike their crash test program (which rates vehicles as good, acceptable, marginal, or poor), the Institute rates crash prevention technologies on a 3-tiered system of superior, advanced, and basic.

For these new ratings, vehicles were tested at 12 and 25 mph. The “superior” rating was awarded to vehicles that had autobrake and were able to avoid a crash or greatly reduce their speed in both tests. An “advanced” rating meant the vehicle had autobrake and avoided a collision or reduced its speed by at least 5 mph in 1 of the 2 tests. A “basic” rating meant the vehicle was equipped with a forward collision warning system that met National Highway Traffic Safety Association standards.

To get an NHTSA endorsement, vehicles are tested under 3 different scenarios (approaching a stopped vehicle, a suddenly decelerating vehicle, and a vehicle moving slower than the test car). The system must warn drivers of an imminent collision within a specified time in at least 5 out of 7 trials.

The IIHS’s most crash-proof cars

Of the 74 models tested (all 2013 or 2014 models), 7 received a superior rating: the Cadillac ATS sedan, Cadillac SRX SUV, Mercedes-Benz C-class sedan, Subaru Legacy sedan, Subaru Outback wagon, Volvo S60 sedan, and Volvo XC60 SUV. All had optional autonomous braking as well as forward collision warning systems.

The 6 vehicles that received an advanced rating are the 2014 Acura MDX SUV, Audi A4 sedan, Audi Q5 SUV, 2014 Jeep Grand Cherokee SUV, Lexus ES sedan, and 2014 Mazda 6 sedan. All were equipped with autobrake and forward collision warning.

Some surprising failures

A few vehicles that tout their autobrake features did not perform well. The BMW 3 series and the Infinity JX SUV both received basic ratings — the BMW braked for a stopped car only if it first detected that car in motion, and the Infinity showed minimal braking at both test speeds. The Toyota Prius v wagon, which offers what Toyota calls a pre-collision system, didn’t qualify for an IIHS rating. It had very little speed reduction in the tests and didn’t meet the NHTSA standard for forward collision warning.

Know before you buy

Even a basic system can significantly reduce your risk of a crash, so check out the full list of IIHS ratings here. It could mean fewer fender benders in your future.

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about Ellen

Ellen has spent many years as a professional wordsmith, helping to shed light on such topics as world travel, cargo pants, and the porosity of bath tiles. As a freelance copywriter for Esurance, she brings her boundless curiosity to the world of insurance. Outside work, she can be found cheering on the San Francisco Giants, hiking in the Oakland hills, and (barely) resisting smuggling penguins home from Antarctica.