The laws of physics dictate that, all else being equal, a larger and heavier vehicle will always fare better in a crash than will a smaller and lighter one. For years, automotive engineers have been fairly successful at rewriting the rules by taking out bulk from cars to save fuel economy while maintaining sufficient occupant protection through clever designs and innovative features.
Well science may be winning this time, at least as far as the smallest cars on the lot are concerned. That’s because of 11 so-called “minicars” subjected to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety’s recently added small overlap frontal crash test, only a single model got better than a “poor” or “marginal” score.
The Chevrolet Spark attained an “acceptable” rating in this assessment, which is designed to replicate the effects of the front corner of a vehicle hitting a pole or other fixed object at 40 mph. At that, weighing less than 2,500 pounds the Spark can’t be expected to perform as well in a crash than a larger or heavier model having the same rating.
In fact no models in what amounts to the smallest class of cars sold in the U.S. earned a top “good” grade, with some of the industry’s top-selling small cars, like the Honda Fit and Fiat 500, failing miserably. “Small, lightweight vehicles have an inherent safety disadvantage,” says Joe Nolan, IIHS senior vice president for vehicle research. “Unfortunately, as a group, minicars aren’t performing as well as other vehicle categories in the small overlap crash.”
By comparison, of the 17 cars evaluated in the “small” category (which encompasses somewhat larger compact sedans), five earned “good” ratings, while another five garnered “acceptable” grades in the small overlap test.
The IIHS added the small overlap frontal crash in 2012, and admits it’s more challenging to ace than the institute’s other impact simulations. That’s because most of a car’s frontal crush zones – designed to absorb crash energy – are bypassed, and test a vehicle’s airbags and seatbelts in more rigorous ways that do conventional frontal-impact tests. Crash forces in these types of collisions go directly into the front wheel, suspension system and firewall, which the IIHS contends can result in serious leg and foot injuries.
What’s more, the Institute notes that none of the minicars it tested, including the Spark, rated higher than marginal or poor in terms of structural integrity. Collapsing structures can dislocate a car’s frontal airbags and seats out of position, resulting in a higher than average risk of injury. Among those tested, all minicars but the Spark and Mazda’s Mazda2 received low ratings for restraints – either the safety belt couldn’t sufficiently hold the test dummy in place, or the dummy's head missed or slid off the frontal airbag.
The report also points out that unlike models in other classes, none of the minicars tested offer automatic frontal crash protection in which sensors warn the driver of an impending collision and can engage the brakes automatically if the driver isn’t reacting quickly enough.
Models that obtained a “marginal” grade in the small overlap test include the Mazda2, Kia Rio, Toyota Yaris and Ford Fiesta, while the Mitsubishi Mirage, Nissan versa, Toyota Prius c, Hyundai Accent, Fiat 500 and Honda Fit were given “poor” ratings. Full test results on these and most other makes and models for the 2014 model year and earlier can be found on the Institute’s website, www.iihs.org.
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