Headlight technology is constantly improving on high-end vehicles. While luxury marquees outfit their flagships with the latest LED lights, and continue development of laser-based headlights, mainstream cars are still stuck with halogen and high-intensity discharge options. Mazda does offer HIDs on its top Grand Touring trim, but our base Mazda5 employs pedestrian halogen technology. Fortunately, the company focuses its halogens with excellent projectors that provide a sharp cut-off and plenty of light. Still, the 55 W H11 bulbs Mazda uses are limited to around 1200 lumens.
Philips, Sylvania, PIAA, and others manufacture replacements able to mimic the color of HIDs, promising greater brightness at the expense of longevity. For example, Sylvania's SilverStar is a popular white halogen bulb rated for just one year. They're not cheap either, priced at $40 for a pair. Ultimately, we went with Philips' cheaper $10 alternatives.
And so those of us with halogen headlights are stuck with expensive bulbs that die every year or less light output with a longer life.
There’s always the option to drop a HID kit into your housing. But that's not ideal either; it causes severe glare issues that can blind oncoming drivers. We considered going this route before coming up with a seemingly more suitable solution.
A company called Hellst (which coincidentally sounds similar to the German automotive lighting supplier Hella), offers drop-in LED replacements for vehicles equipped with H11 bulbs. Naturally, we contacted Hellst hoping to check out its technology. The company promises up to 3200 lumens from two large LED elements, a 5500 K color temperature, less power consumption (35 W), plug and play compatibility, and a 40,000-hour lifespan.
LED headlights aren't cheap, though. Hellst charges $174 and $15 for global shipping. That seems pricey up until you take the promised lifespan into account. Sylvania rates its SilverStar zXe for 650 hours and sells that kit for $60. By the time Hellst's bulbs need replacement, you will have gone through 60 sets of the SilverStar zXe. Over time, paying extra for LEDs makes sense.
The kit was easy to install; the bulbs drop right into the stock H11 fitting. They do rely on ballasts that need to be mounted, but Hellst includes Velcro to simplify placement. We stuck the ballasts to the inside of each fender and plugged in the requisite wiring. Notice that the bulbs have a heat sink and small fan protruding out the back. This is necessary to cool them. The fan engages when the headlights turn on and is rated for up to 20,000 hours (half as long as the bulbs). Nevertheless, the lights dim if the fan goes out, protecting the elements inside. Hellst also says it'll issue a free replacement if your fans fail.
Since these headlights employ two bright CREE LEDs mounted back to back, their orientation in the housing is important. I mistakenly installed the bulbs with the LEDs situated horizontally, creating a dead zone of light. It didn't look right at all. So, I moved the LEDs to a vertical position, which fixed the issue.
At first I was impressed at how bright the Hellst H11 kit was. It projects a clean, white light directly in front of the car, where driving lamps are typically aimed. But after a couple of evenings, I noticed that the peripheral coverage wasn't as good as the halogens. You get lots of light up close and down low, but then it falls off down the road compared to stock.
Currently, I'm not comfortable recommending the Hellst LED replacements until we can get to the bottom of the peripheral illumination issue. Driving around town, the improvements aren't as apparent as we hoped, since we're fighting blinding oncoming traffic, street lights and lots of glare reflecting off of the wet Washington roads. In typical driving situations, Hellst's solution offers little improvement beyond the initial wow factor.