A loaded Hyundai Elantra earns a Top Safety Pick+ score from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. The base model does not. What’s the difference? Like a lot of modern cars, the
Hyundai Elantra has option packages that include upgraded headlights. That can mean the difference between seeing clearly at night, or struggling. Here’s a look at the different kinds of headlights available, and what vehicles to shop for the best night vision.

Headlight Safety

“Exterior lights on a car have two functions: they help you see, and they help you be seen,” said Richard Reina, Product Training Director at CarID.com. “Headlights are a safety feature just as much as airbags and ABS.”

Forbes recently published a report showing 75% of vehicle shoppers consider safety features as a top selling point. To inform those buyers, the IIHS tests dozens of vehicles every year, publishing their crash test results for consumer awareness. For example, here is a detailed look at why the Elantra earns that score. Top Safety Pick used to be the highest rating, but the IIHS recently added the “+” to provide more info in two additional areas: active safety features and headlight function.

“The best headlights may not be available at all on the make and model you’re purchasing,” said Reina. “Or you may have to buy a higher end trim level or options package in order to get superior lights. I like that the IIHS is calling this out to increase consumer awareness.

“Just because you’re buying a brand new 2019 vehicle, there’s no guarantee that you’re getting good headlights.”

The Nissan Frontier for example, hasn’t seen a redesign since Avatar was in theaters. Understandably, its headlights score “Poor” in every trim level. It’s a solid truck with real capability and tough looks for a great price, but you might want to spend $30 on a set of upgraded bulbs for nighttime driving.

Headlights Are Not Equal

On the used car market, you’ll find three different kinds of headlights available on vehicles:

  • Halogens are what you remember from the ’80s, with a light bulb with a filament, and that yellowish tone to the light. This was on your mom’s ’89 Ford Escort, and they’re still found in the brand new Toyota Tacoma base model.
  • HID stands for High-Intensity Discharge, or Xenon lights. Instead of bulbs, an electrode heats a gas which creates the distinct blue-ish white light. We’ve seen these for about 20 years now, initially only on prestige luxury cars like the Mercedes-Benz S-Class, they’re now common enough to find on the Buick Regal.
  • Light Emitting Diodes are the new hot trend as they are brighter, require less energy than the above lights, and last noticeably longer, but they are still somewhat rare on new vehicles. First seen on the Audi A8 a decade ago as that glowing eyelash-looking strip of daytime running lights, full LED headlight assemblies feature in high-end rides like the BMW M3 and M4.

Since LEDs are made of less parts and operate on less power, manufacturers are switching to them to help meet stringent emissions requirements, so expect to see more LEDs soon.

What Vehicles Have the Best Headlights

For the 2018 model year, the IIHS website shows the best available headlights are available on only 21 models. But, those great headlights usually aren’t available on every trim level. Thirty-two models have only “Marginal” rated headlights, while “Poor” rated headlights are the only ones available for 43 models. Here are a few vehicles that get it right.

The Lexus NX, a stylish mid-size crossover with an amazing interior, earns a “Good” headlight score at every trim level, even the base model. This is because Lexus uses bright three-projector LEDs with their superior light output as the vehicle’s standard headlights.

The Genesis G90 is the premier luxury car from the new Hyundai spin off brand. Genesis gets a lot of things right, from the incredibly quiet and well-appointed interior, to the smooth V8. It’s also the only other vehicle as of 2018 to offer LEDs at all trim levels.

If you’re shopping mid-tier or base model vehicles, check the ratings for that particular trim level. IIHS info shows the best available headlights on the Chevrolet Volt, Genesis G80, Mercedes-Benz E-Class and Toyota Camry earn a “Good” score, while the base models have cheaper headlights, but are still rated “Acceptable.”

“Buyers should try to consider high-end headlights within their budget for the most safety,” said Reina. “If you’re weighing vehicle A versus vehicle B, this could be one of a number of determining factors that you’d want to look at before making your final decision.”

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