PhotoThe term “muscle car” conjures up images of performance, speed, and power. Safety? You would think these behemoths would offer all the protections you need. But, as the song goes, “it ain't necessarily so.”

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) recently ran three top sports coupes through their tests and found that none of them racked up the scores necessary for a TOP SAFETY PICK award.

The Chevrolet Camaro, Dodge Challenger, and Ford Mustang took part in the full battery of crashworthiness evaluations, with the Mustang coming closest to earning TOP SAFETY PICK. The Camaro missed the mark in one category and lacks an available front crash prevention system. The Challenger is most in need of improvement.

To qualify for the IIHS TOP SAFETY PICK, vehicles must earn good ratings in the small overlap front, moderate overlap front, side, roof strength, and head restraint evaluations and have a basic-rated front crash prevention system.

How they stack up

The Camaro, Challenger and Mustang earn good ratings for occupant protection in a moderate overlap front crash, as well as a side impact.

In the small overlap front test -- the newest and toughest IIHS crashworthiness evaluation -- the Camaro earns a good rating, the Mustang earns an acceptable rating, and the Challenger is rated as marginal.

"The Mustang is just one good rating away from earning TOP SAFETY PICK," IIHS President Adrian Lund pointed out. "Its small overlap rating holds it back."

The small overlap test replicates what happens when a vehicle runs off the road and hits a tree or pole or clips another vehicle that has crossed the center line. It is an especially challenging test because it involves a vehicle's outer edges, which aren't well-protected by the crush-zone structures.

The Challenger wasn't up to the challenge of the small overlap test. Extensive intrusion into the lower occupant compartment limited the driver's survival space and resulted in a poor rating for structure and for leg/foot protection. Measures taken from the dummy indicate a high likelihood of serious lower leg injuries.

In contrast, survival space for the driver in the Camaro was well-maintained, and the risk of injuries to the dummy's legs and feet was low. The Camaro was redesigned for the 2016 model year.

"The Camaro's safety cage is built to resist intrusion in a small overlap crash, and that's good news for Camaro drivers," Lund says.

The Camaro and Mustang earn good ratings for head restraints and seats to protect against neck injuries in rear crashes. The Challenger's head restraints are rated as acceptable.

The Mustang earns a good rating for roof strength, and the Camaro and Challenger earn acceptable ratings.

Consumer inquiries

IIHS doesn't typically crash-test sports cars, as they make up a small share of the consumer market. However, IIHS engineers decided to evaluate these models with optional V-8 engines because they are big sellers in their class, and consumers often ask how they would perform in crash tests.

Insurance data points to high losses for sports cars. As a group, they have the highest losses among passenger vehicles for crash damage repairs under collision coverage, data from the Highway Loss Data Institute shows. Collision coverage insures against physical damage to the at-fault policyholder's vehicle in a crash.

"Given that sports cars have high crash rates, it's especially important that they offer the best occupant protection possible in a crash," Lund concluded.

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