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April 2008: A clear view of road safety

YOU could be forgiven for thinking that, with windows and screens getting ever larger in today’s cars, visibility would be improving. But you’d be wrong.

The fact is that, as carmakers strive for greater occupant safety, a negative knock-on is chunkier bodywork and reduced visibility – a bit like many of the nation’s children, really.

The front, middle and rear window pillars of cars – known as A, B and C pillars, respectively – often house airbags so are getting fatter.

And new car buyers, although delighted with the dramatic improvements in safety equipment and crash protection, are increasingly griping about poor visibility.

Now the consumer magazine Which? has carried out a wide-ranging test of every car’s visibility, using a specially designed rig with lasers, digital cameras and clever computer software.

They checked for the driver’s view around a full 360 degrees, logging how much is unrestricted and how much is pillar, roof or headrests, and they carried out line-of-sight tests to see if it would be possible to spot a stray child or dog while parking.

The testers also looked at the effectiveness of wipers and headlights, rated the mirrors and parking aids, and marked down vehicles with annoying reflections in the windscreen.

The Which? report makes interesting reading and as ever there are winners and losers.

Best of the lot, and by a distance, was the Subaru Outback Estate. The rest of the top ten comprised two Mercedes sports (CLK Cabriolet and the SLK), two Citroens (C4 Picasso and C6 saloon), two Fords (Focus estate and S-Max), plus the Saab 9-5 Estate, the Renault Escape and the Fiat Multipla.

The report team says: “The Outback’s slanting nose gives a clear forward view, while narrow pillars also allow good visibility to the left rear corner. The Saab 9-5 estate is also bright and airy, with clear visibility, helped by rear head restraints which stow flush to the back seats.”

The ten worst performers contained a few surprises, notably the presence of three species of Honda, a breed that usually finds itself garlanded by awards and bouquets. The Civic Hatchback, the FR-V and S2000 sports job are all black-marked.

But the worst of them all, say the test team, and by a distance, is the sleek little Alfa Romeo Spider sports car. “Alfa seemingly knows the Spider’s visibility leaves much to be desired,” say the report’s authors. “The car has commendably large door mirrors and comes with standard reversing sensors – and you’ll really need them. Both head restraints block the view in the rear-view mirror, and the tiny rear screen makes matters worse.”

The other six models making up the worst ten are the Mazda MX-5, Alfa Romeo 159 Sportwagon, Seat Altea, Volkswagen Touran, Dodge Caliber and Vauxhall Astra estate.

All the convertibles were tested with their hoods up, probably because it was raining, but such benefits as parking sensors were disregarded.

The Which? report offers various suggestions as to how to overcome the problems, but the principal one is to make sure you try things out – preferably with a full cargo of passengers – before you go for a test drive in a new car.

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