TOCHIGI, Japan — First comes the countdown. Then, to the sound of an alarming buzzer, two cars emerge from opposing doorways, 284 yds. (260 m) apart.

And they're headed straight toward one another.

Watching the vehicles on their course of doom is enough to cause all but the most intent of safety engineers to cringe, hands lifted up to eyes as if the anticipation is too much to bear.

The actual crash seems to occur in slow motion, as trim flies into the air and trunks twist to impossible angles. No sooner do the vehicles — a Honda Civic and an Acura RL — come to rest than a fleet of men in white coats rush to the scene and begin to assess the damage.

The place of all this calculated excitement: Honda Motor Co. Ltd.'s crash-test facility at its research and development center in Tochigi, Japan. The new testing center, which has the ability to conduct off-center car-to-car collisions as well as pedestrian-to-car crash tests, is unparalleled among the world's auto makers, Honda claims.

The indoor all-weather, vehicle-to-vehicle crash test facility opened in March 2000 and represents an investment of $65 million. It is “another significant step in our ongoing efforts to keep the safety of our vehicles at the forefront of technological advancement — for the driver, for passengers and for pedestrians,” says Honda President Hiroyuki Yoshino. It is, he adds, the first of its kind in the world.

Most impressive about the gymnasium-like center is its sheer size: 441,324 sq.-ft. (41,000 sq.-m) in area, with a north-south span of 892 ft. (272 m) and an east-west span of 584 ft. (178 m). Yankee Stadium could fit inside it.

In all, there are eight test tracks, constructed in a radial shape, allowing for collisions in 15-degree increments from 0 to 180 degrees, with variations ranging from 10% front offset to head-on collision. Maximum hauling speed — when the two vehicles are simultaneously powered to their limits — is 50 mph (80 km/h).

The many permutations also allow for Honda to conduct the tests between vehicles of different weights and body structures as well as vehicles traveling at varying speeds and angles. In the test-accident between the Civic and RL, for example, the RL's weight is 1.4 times that of the Civic. That particular accident was conducted at 32 mph (50 km/h), as 90% of real-world accidents occur at this speed or lower, Honda says.

Also under careful examination are car-pedestrian accidents, far more common in congested urban Japan than in the U.S. Honda was the first to develop a pedestrian dummy, back in 1998. Information from this dummy found its way into designs for the Odyssey minivan as well as minicars made for Japan.

The auto maker's second-generation dummy, known as POLAR II, has been redesigned not only to measure impact on the head and chest but also on the abdomen and legs. It also more faithfully represents the joints of the human body, with a particular emphasis on knee injuries. Data from POLAR II already is being put to use. In the U.S., the Civic and Acura RSX — Honda's newest models — have incorporated head-injury protection measures.

Honda not only plans to use more data in its total safety technology systems but also plans to make its car-pedestrian crash data available to other interested parties.

When the vehicle collides with a dummy, the dummy, suspended in air, is dropped — timed exactly to the millisecond with the oncoming vehicle. The vehicle hits the 165-lb. (75 kg) dummy at a speed of 25 mph (40 km/h), based on the fact that most drivers will see the pedestrian and hit the brakes seconds before the collision. It's also the speed at which about 50% of deaths occur, officials say.

The accident — whether between cars or between car and pedestrian dummy — occurs over a glass floor with cameras below, just some of the scores of cameras trained on the accident.

Honda R&D has some 300 safety engineers, many of whom spend their time analyzing the data collected from cameras as well as vehicle- and dummy-mounted sensors.

And with these massive tests — Honda doesn't conduct them too often due to costs involved — the auto maker hopes to make cars safer for passenger and people.

The emphasis on safety already has earned some rewards. Vehicles from the Odyssey right down to the compact Civic have achieved the National Highway Traffic Safety Admin.'s 5-star safety rating as well as the highest-ever rating for pedestrian safety in the latest Euro N-CAP tests.