With the high cost of gasoline driving car buyers from big trucks and SUVs into smaller vehicles, the topic of safety has frequently been raised, as many consumers are wondering if smaller vehicles can offer them as much protection as their previous "enormo-sleds" in the event of a crash.

Well, as it turns out, according to a recent study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), side impact crash protection is stronger in many sedans than in several of the small pickup trucks now on the market.

The Toyota Tacoma was the only one of five 2008 small pickup trucks that earned the highest rating of "good" when it comes to occupant protection in recent side crash tests conducted by the IIHS.

The Dodge Dakota, Ford Ranger, and Nissan Frontier were rated as "marginal," while the Chevrolet Colorado (which is also sold as the GMC Canyon), was rated "poor" in the side impact tests, which simulate a side impact from an SUV or another pickup. "Poor" is the lowest rating a vehicle can earn in the IIHS crash tests.

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"More people may be looking at small pickups because of rising gas prices," says IIHS president Adrian Lund. "Unfortunately, they won't find many that afford state-of-the-art crash protection. Most earn dismal ratings for protecting people in side crashes, and all but the Tacoma and Frontier lack electronic stability control, which is a key feature in preventing crashes.

"Until they improve, most small pickups aren't good choices for people looking for safe transportation."

A truck's side impact worthiness is important because side impacts are the second most common type of fatal crash, killing nearly 9,000 occupants in 2006, according to IIHS data. The Toyota Tacoma scored high in the tests because its side airbags did a good job of reducing the crash force experienced by the driver dummy and the passenger dummy in the back seat.

Meanwhile, the curtain-style airbag that deploys from the area of the Tacoma's roof above the side windows also protected the dummies' heads from being struck by any hard structures -- meaning that the risk of significant injury to the head/neck and chest was low.

The tests also measure whether a fracture of the pelvis would be possible in a real-world crash of this nature. The Tacoma's structure held up reasonably well, according to the Institute, which prevented major intrusion into the cabin.

But the news wasn't all good for the Toyota Tacoma. While the truck also earned the "good" rating for frontal crash protection, it earned the second lowest rating of "marginal" for its protection against whiplash in rear-end crashes. If Toyota were to improve the Tacoma's rear crash rating, the carmaker would have the only two pickup models to earn the IIHS "Top Safety Pick" so far," said Lund. The other is Toyota's Tundra, a large pickup truck.

Notably, the Tacoma is the only pickup in the group of small models that was tested with side airbags, which are optional in 2008 Tacoma models, but standard on 2009 Toyota Tacoma models which should be in dealer showrooms as of this writing. When side airbags are optional, the Institute's policy is to test a vehicle without the option. An auto manufacturer may request a second test with the airbags if the automaker reimburses the Institute for the cost of the vehicle.

Dodge, Nissan and Chevy did not request second tests for the Dakota, Frontier, and Colorado, according to the IIHS. (Note: Side airbags aren't offered in the Ford Ranger, either as standard equipment or an option.) The Tacoma was tested only with its optional side airbags, said Lund, which is an exception to the Institute's normal policy since such airbags will be standard in the 2009 Tacoma pickups shipped to dealers in July.

"We assume the other manufacturers don't expect their vehicles to perform much better, even with the optional side airbags," Lund says. "In contrast, Toyota is ahead of its competitors in making the latest safety equipment standard on small pickups. Consumers shouldn't have to choose safety from an options list, and they shouldn't buy any vehicle that isn't equipped with side airbags and electronic stability control."

In 2008 side airbags are standard in more than 65 percent of new vehicle models, according to the IIHS, and manufacturers have vowed to make them standard throughout their fleets by the 2010 model year. A federal side impact standard that will basically require side airbags goes into effect in the 2015 model year.

In response to the recent crash-test rankings, the carmakers defended the safety records of their respective small pick-up trucks.

Carolyn Markey, manager of Policy and Washington Communications for General Motors, replied to the poor rankings for the Colorado / Canyon by saying that those vehicles "meet or exceed all federal safety standards and have performed very well in other consumer information tests.

"The crash performance of the Colorado Crew Cab was demonstrated in the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's (NHTSA) New Car Assessment Program (NCAP) in which the truck received the highest rating of 5-stars for both the driver and front passenger in the frontal crash test, and a 4-star rating for the driver and 5-star rating for the rear passenger in the side test," Markey continued.

"While GM conducts more than 150 different types of crash tests on its vehicles, only about 25 percent are called for in regulatory or consumer information tests like the IIHS," she added. "The IIHS side crash test is a single test designed to simulate a very severe crash.

"The Colorado and Canyon pickups employ a host of safety features consistent with GM's Continuous Safety approach and GM's electronic stability control system, StabiliTrak, is standard for the 2009 model year versions."

Wes Sherwood, a Ford spokesman for safety issues, defended Ford's small-pick-up entry as well.

"The (Ford) Ranger continues to be very competitive in IIHS crash testing and has received the highest ratings in the government's front and side crash tests for the driver," said Sherwood. "It's impossible to judge a vehicle's overall safety performance from one crash test. Ford vehicles perform safely in a wide range of real-world accident conditions because we subject them to thousands of crash tests -- both virtually and with prototypes -- every year and evaluate their performance in real-world conditions."

A Chrysler spokesperson also commented on the Dakota's "marginal" rating.

"The '08 Dakota is equipped with many safety and security systems, including Advanced Multi-Stage Front Air Bags, Anti-lock Brake System, Seat Belt Pretensioners and Tire Pressure Monitoring," said spokesman Max Gates. "The Dakota has performed well in a variety of internal and external test conditions, and meets or exceeds all Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards. Dakota also received the highest rating (five stars) in every category of the Federal government's frontal and side impact crash tests.

"No single test can determine a vehicle's overall safety performance," said Gates, echoing Sherwood's sentiments. "Chrysler looks at safety from a holistic approach. Our priority continues to be designing vehicles that perform safely for our customers and their families in 'everyday' driving conditions."

Small pickup trucks have the highest driver death rates of any vehicles on the road, including compact cars, according to the Institute -- which reported that, in 2006, small pickups experienced 116 driver deaths per million registered vehicles 1-3 years old -- compared to 106 for compact cars, 99 for small cars, and 42 for small SUVs.

One reason for that, says the IIHS, is that small pickup trucks are more likely than other passenger vehicles to be involved in single-vehicle crashes, especially rollovers.

One feature that can help prevent crashes, electronic stability control, is not available on many pickups, according to the IIHS, whose data says that ESC is standard on 12 percent of 2008 pickups, and not on 67 percent of pick-ups.

By comparison, electronic stability control is standard on 64 percent of cars and 95 percent of SUVs, according to the IIHS. The only small pickups in this group of recently-tested vehicles with available electronic stability control are the Tacoma and Frontier, said the IIHS. Toyota said this feature would be standard on the Tacoma starting with 2009 models.

"We would expect electronic stability control to significantly reduce the single-vehicle crash risk in small pickups," Lund said. "It's a lifesaving feature that should be standard on all of these vehicles."


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