A study by the US Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) has found headlights on a third of medium-sized vehicles sold in the US do a ‘poor’ job, and it’s probably the same here too.

A STUDY IN THE US is shining light (sorry) on what many Australians are also beginning to ask questions about, and that is the quality of standard-fit headlights on entry level vehicles. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety in the US looked at 31 medium-size cars on sale in the US and assessed their headlights for illumination quality and whether they “create excessive glare for oncoming vehicles”.

Many of the cars tested are on-sale in Australia and, so, would theoretically carry the same lighting issues. The IIHS carries a lot of weight in the US with consumers and so you can guarantee that many of the makers scoring ‘poor’ rankings will be working fast to improve that score going forward.

Of 31 medium-size vehicles it tested, 11 earned an ‘acceptable’ rating, nine were rated ‘marginal’ and 10 were ‘poor’. The Prius v was rated good when equipped with optional LED headlights and a feature that turns off high beams when there is an oncoming car. Here in Australia these LED headlights are available on the Prius v i-Tech. The entry-level Prius v, which only gets halogen headlights, as it does here too, received a poor rating.

Vehicles getting acceptable ratings include the Audi A3, Honda Accord and Nissan Maxima. Vehicles with poor ratings include the Kia Optima, Chevrolet Malibu and Volkswagen Passat.

According to the IIHS, many luxury vehicles have poor-rated headlights, and many cars only get higher ratings with cost-option packages, or higher grade models.

But, the IIHS said that one of the main issues was in the way the headlights were being set either at the factory or in dealerships. And this is something Practical Motoring discovered not long after the site was launched when we were running an Hyundai i30 as a long-termer. Many readers contacted us to say the headlights on their i30s (and these readers lived in rural areas) offered poor illumination on main beam. It turns out the headlights hadn’t been adjusted to local specifications; and once they had been, the readers claimed a marked improvement.

Before contacting PM, many of them had toyed with beefing up the bulbs in their headlights, which is not something we recommend as if you exceed manufacturer recommendations you can, one, void your warranty and, two, in extreme cases actually melt your lights.

“Many headlight problems could be fixed with better aim,” said IIHS engineer Matthew Brumbelow.

Question: Should ANCAP start to consider headlight performance as part of its safety testing regime? We say, yes, and the ANCAP equivalent in the US, the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration agrees, confirming that its “revised new car assessment program will give incentives for automakers to improve headlight performance”.

See you in the comments.


There’s always the option of aftermarket lights, but make sure you comply with your state’s road regulations.

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  1. I cannot test all headlights, but I do know that the last 2 new cars I bought (VW Polo and Commodore) had terrible adjustment on their headlights. The Commodore lights where pointed too high, an easy fix, the VW lights almost pointed to the ground and had to be refitted:( Do the companies actually adjust/check the headlights in the factory?

    1. No answer on this question for over a week…don’t think anyone here is listening Maggie, but I’ll try to answer your question. …The original new car ‘pre-delivery’ inspection at the dealership, (by a qualified mechanic), is supposed to check things like headlight operation. Unfortunately, a lot of dealers (not all dealers) only check that the headlights are working, and because any adjustment, if required, maybe from twenty minutes to one hour of the mechanic’s time, this is mostly not done unless it is extraordinarily obvious that there is a problem. If you do find a problem with your lights on a new car, then the first service inspection after purchase, (or sooner, if it is a concern to you) is the time to bring it up. Also, many manufacturers (and dealers) have a representative who contacts you soon after a new purchase, to see how things are going with the new car, and that is another opportunity to mention any problems. ..Used cars are buyer beware, so take your time, and ask as many questions as you want of the seller, including what would they do with the above ‘headlight situation’ should there be one…..good luck.

      1. No, Delighted. Not ignoring Maggie. We’ve answered this question in another article and we should have referred Maggie to that one. Apologies, but we’re always here. Thanks Isaac

        1. Ok Isaak, hope she got the message. Headlight (and fog light) effectiveness important to me as I do a lot of night driving on country roads all year round. Headlight effectiveness certainly not the same on all cars. While most ‘modern’ cars have better lights than those of earlier times, there is still a lot of difference between makes, even when the technology used is similar. While xenon appears ‘brighter’ than halogen (certainly ‘whiter’) there appears still to be differences between ‘xenon’ technology. (for example the xenons used on Jeep Grand Cherokee and Chrysler 300 seem much brighter than other makes. As do those put into German cars.) ..is there an effective difference between car makes with the same or similar technology? Lights rarely get a mention in car reviews, even long term reviews, so an article in detail on head and fog light effectiveness (on country roads, at night,) would be most useful. Because of my driving conditions, especially mid winter, (something I am sure you are familiar with, coming from Bathurst) Headlight and fog light effectiveness is a major part of any car purchasing decision that I make. Sorry to waffle on, but as I said, headlight effectiveness rarely gets a mention, fog lights even less, so more information is needed. Apologies for the length of message, and thank you.

  2. I agree they should be tested…..both on how well they help you see, and how well you can be seen….and the sensors on auto systems need to be rested for sensitivity to ensure they come on when appropriate…

    Low beam in particular I have never found good enough on most cars I’ve owned, though improving them without dazzling other road users can be tricky…

  3. It shouldn’t be that hard to get better headlights. We have an exceptional amount of knowledge in physics and how light works. Setting up the reflectors and positioning of the bulb in the headlight array is nothing more than putting that physics into practice. We do it with LED headlight arrays, nothing should stop the engineers in doing it in halogen light arrays.

    The next thing we need to consider is the use of better quality bulbs. I replaced the OEM bulbs of my Passat with a set of brighter and whiter Osram units. Cost me $40 and about 10 minutes of fiddling with the light to get it unplugged and replugged. The difference was fantastic. I would have easily got an extra 10-20m of illumination, the light was brighter, lighter and all done by a set of not-$2 bulbs.

  4. There is not a single car on the road that has what I would call decent headlights. All cars, if they are used for any reasonable amount of night driving, need supplementary lighting be it driving lights, LED light bars etc.

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