This week the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety released the results of a study testing the safety of small cars. With increased gas prices, the fuel savings offered by smaller models have increased their popularity recently. Of the eight models tested, all 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 high marks for Versa is the result of its greater heft, weighing several hundred pounds heavier than competing models.
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 results demonstrate that even the safest subcompact car cannot overcome its inherent size and weight disadvantage. On average, subcompacts weigh about 800 pounds less than midsize sedans like the Toyota Camry and 4,000 pounds less than midsize S.U.V.’s The tests show that as with all vehicles, 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.
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 more than double the average for all sizes of cars and trucks, at 83 deaths per million registered vehicles.
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.
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.