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Ranked: Small cars with the best headlights for 2023

Picture of Chris Teague

Chris Teague

Small cars aren’t quite as popular as they once were, as many buyers gravitate toward larger SUVs and pickup trucks. There’s a misplaced belief that larger vehicles provide better safety, but that’s not always the case, as there are several small, midsize, and large cars that offer all the safety and crash prevention technologies that their SUV counterparts do. 

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) crash tests most, but not all, new models. The agency’s process involves collision safety tests, evaluations of safety and crash prevention technology, nighttime headlight tests, and a rating on the ease with which a car seat can be installed. Headlights play a significant role in vehicle safety, and vehicles with headlights that earn “Good” scores in IIHS are involved in 20 percent fewer nighttime accidents than those with lower scores. Driving at night is three times as risky as driving during the day, so it’s important to consider headlight quality when buying your next car

How the IIHS Rates Vehicles

The IIHS updates its testing methodology as new vehicle types and technologies become available. To earn a Top Safety Pick award, a vehicle must perform well in crash tests and offer robust crash prevention technologies. The headlights play an essential role in safety scores, as the lower award has requirements for optional lights, and the top award requires “Good” scores for standard lighting.

IIHS Standards for earning a Top Safety Pick designation 

A vehicle must earn “Good” ratings in all crash test categories. In addition, the available front crash prevention technology must earn an “Advanced” or “Superior” score in both vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-pedestrian crash avoidance. There is also a requirement for an “Acceptable” or “Good” score for available/optional headlights. 

IIHS Standards for earning a Top Safety Pick + designation 

Earning a Top Safety Pick + award adds a requirement that the standard headlights earn “Acceptable” or Good” scores. The cars on this list all earned “Good” scores for headlights. 

cars with the best headlights for 2023

2023 Honda Civic

Top Safety Pick +

In addition to grabbing Top Safety Pick + awards, the Honda Civic Sedan and Civic Hatchback earned top honors for their headlights. The LED reflector lights lack curve adaptive functionality but offer high beam assist that the IIHS says compensates for some of the lights’ limitations. The low beams provide good visibility and can illuminate the sides of the road, though they do create some glare. The IIHS said the high beams provided good visibility in all of its tests, including curves.

cars with the best headlights for 2023

2023 Mazda3

Top Safety Pick +

The Mazda3 and Mazda3 Hatchback are among the safest small cars money can buy, and their headlights played a significant role in that success. Two headlight options are available, and both earned top marks. Curve adaptive functionality is standard, along with high-beam assist. The IIHS says that the low beams provide good visibility on straights and curves and notes that they never exceeded the glare limits. The high beams earned good scores in all situations. 

cars with the best headlights for 2023

2023 Subaru Crosstrek Hybrid

Top Safety Pick +

The Subaru Crosstrek offers a surprising number of standard features and good ride quality, and that’s before we start talking about safety scores. Its Top Safety Pick + award included top marks for its headlights. The low beams deliver good visibility in most situations but weren’t the best in left curve testing. Even so, they did not exceed glare limits, and the Subaru’s high beams delivered good visibility. 

cars with the best headlights for 2023

2023 Subaru BRZ

Top Safety Pick +

Sports cars need to be safe, too, and Subaru gave the BRZ a load of standard features that helped it earn a Top Safety Pick + award. The LED projector lights offer curve adaptive functions and high-beam assist in the top Limited trim, but it’s important to note that all trims’ headlights earned “Good” scores, even without the available adaptive features. None of the four available headlight configurations produced too much glare in low-beam tests, and the IIHS notes adequate illumination in curve testing. The high beams delivered good side-of-road visibility in curves and straight roads.

2023 Toyota GR86

Top Safety Pick +

The GR86 is virtually identical to the Subaru BRZ, as the two automakers collaborated to create the rowdy two-door cars. Like the BRZ, all four headlight configurations earned “Good” scores, even in versions without curve adaptability or automatic high beams. The low beams never exceeded glare limits, and the high beams provide good visibility in curves and on straights.

Frequently asked questions about the cars with the best headlights for 2023

Are popup headlights illegal?

Popup headlights are legal, but there have been studies that show popup headlights to be harder to design for safety regulations. They are also more expensive to engineer and install and tend to have a higher failure rate than fixed headlights.

Are LED headlights better than halogen?

LED lights are typically brighter and do not use as much energy as halogens, so they are becoming the favored setup. At the same time, LEDs don’t generate as much heat as halogens, so there’s a risk that they could freeze over in cold weather.

Can I replace my own headlight bulbs?

Absolutely. It’s completely possible to change headlight bulbs in several vehicles, but newer LED and HID units may be more complicated and require special tools. If you’re uncomfortable in the garage, having a professional do the swap is a good idea to ensure the lights are correctly installed and working as expected.

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