Small Cars Come Up Short in Crash-Test Safety Study
Insurance Institute for Highway Safety
By NICK BUNKLEY
Published: December 19, 2006
DETROIT, Dec. 18 — Small cars are back in vogue because of high gasoline prices but most fail to provide the same safety protection that buyers find in bigger vehicles, according to the results of new tests simulating crashes with sport utility vehicles or pickup trucks.
All eight models of small cars tested by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety received passing scores in head-on crash tests, but only one, the Nissan Versa, received high marks in both side- and rear-crash tests. The Versa is several hundred pounds heavier than competing models and therefore was better able to withstand the test impact.
Three other models — Toyota Yaris, Honda Fit and Mini Cooper from BMW — scored well in side tests but received low ratings in rear tests.
[The Hyundai Accent (picture), was near the bottom among subcompact cars in simulated test crashes with sport utilities and pickup trucks.]
The results, which are being released Tuesday, show that some small cars offer significantly better protection than others, but experts caution that even the safest subcompact car cannot overcome its inherent size and weight disadvantage. On average, subcompacts weigh about 800 pounds less than midsize cars like the Toyota Camry and 4,000 pounds less than midsize S.U.V.’s like the Ford Explorer.
“A good-scoring small and lightweight car is not nearly as good as a good-scoring midsize car — that’s just the law of physics,” the insurance institute’s president, Adrian Lund, said. “If you’re really shopping for safety, then this probably isn’t your best choice.”
Small cars can be forced backward more easily in crashes with larger vehicles, and their crumple zones are less able to protect the passenger compartment.
As a result, fatality rates for drivers in multiple-vehicle crashes are higher for subcompacts than for every other vehicle category — 83 deaths per million registered vehicles, more than double the average for all sizes of cars and trucks.
Mr. Lund said he was particularly concerned that only the Versa performed well in rear-end crashes because that type of accident was common and can often lead to severe neck or head injuries, especially when the car is struck by a larger vehicle.
The tests show that as with other vehicle segments, air bags offer critical protection in a side-impact crash, the deadliest type of collision. The Yaris was rated “good” in side testing with its optional curtain and torso airbags but “poor” without them.
The size of subcompacts means that without the buffer a side air bag creates, the front end of a truck or S.U.V. could strike an occupant’s head. But dealers say their customers rarely are willing to pay more for side air bags or wait longer for a vehicle equipped with them.
Brett Younger, general manager at Champion Toyota in Philadelphia, said most shoppers wanted a Yaris “as inexpensive as we can get it in an automatic.” Parents buying the vehicle for a young driver child often request side air bags, which have been in short supply in parts of the United States since the Yaris went on sale, Mr. Younger said, but other buyers see the $650 add-on as unnecessary.
Although many consumers see subcompacts as a means of saving money on gas, Mr. Lund hopes the crash tests persuade them not to scrimp too much.
“It’s most important in this smallest class that you get all the safety features that you can,” he said.
Side air bags are not available on the Toyota Scion xB wagon, which was one of the lowest-rated subcompacts, with a score of “poor” in side testing and “marginal” in the rear.
The Chevrolet Aveo from General Motors, the Hyundai Accent and the Kia Rio also performed unacceptably in side-impact tests, even though side air bags are standard.
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