• Dec 17th 2008 at 3:58PM
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Click above for a gallery of high-res IIHS crash carnage

Recent testing indicates that new cars are safe, regardless of their relative size. No surprise, then, that most of the latest 2009 model-year small cars tested by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety performed fairly well. Included in this round of testing were the Chevrolet HHR, Chrysler PT Cruiser, Ford Focus, Hyundai Elantra, Saturn Astra, Suzuki SX4, and Toyota Matrix. All seven of these machines (remember too that the Pontiac Vibe uses the same underpinnings as the Matrix) scored "good," the highest rating available, for occupant protection in frontal crashes, and only the newest designs -- the SX4, Matrix and Vibe -- scored that high in side crash testing.

The poorest performer of the group, Chrysler's PT Cruiser, also happens to be the oldest design. This being the case, it's lowly "poor" rating in side and rear crashes, due in large part to its ineffective head restraints and lack of rear side-mounted airbags, isn't too shocking. The HHR and SX4 also scored only marginally better in seat/head restraint testing. The latest MINI Cooper was also smashed for science, and it performed fairly well for a car of its diminutive proportions. For a complete recount of the IIHS results, click past the break. Feeling an unhealthy desire to see the aftermath? Check out our gallery below.

[Source: IIHS]


New crash tests of small cars: good ratings in frontal tests but many models need better side and rear crash protection

ARLINGTON, VA - Most new small cars now earn good ratings in frontal crash tests but not when it comes to side and rear crashes. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety recently completed front, side, and rear tests of seven 2009 model small cars: Chevrolet HHR, Chrysler PT Cruiser, Ford Focus, Hyundai Elantra, Saturn Astra, Suzuki SX4, and Toyota Matrix. All earn the highest rating of good for occupant protection in frontal crashes. Only the SX4 and Matrix and its twin Pontiac Vibe also earn good ratings for protection in side crashes. Among seat/head restraints evaluated, only those in the Focus earn a good rating for protection in rear impacts. The Institute also tested the Mini Cooper, a minicar that earns good ratings for front and rear crashworthiness but not for side protection.

"Automakers have made big improvements to small cars to better protect people in frontal crashes," says Institute senior vice president Joe Nolan. "They've also added stronger structures and standard head-protecting side airbags to help in side crashes, which are tougher on smaller, lighter cars."

Eleven of the 21 current small car models the Institute has rated earn good ratings for side protection. "This is a huge improvement from our last comprehensive round of small car crashworthiness evaluations in 2006," Nolan says. "Then only 3 of the 19 tested earned a good rating in the side evaluation. Most earned a poor rating."

The Institute's side test is especially challenging for small cars because the barrier that strikes the test vehicle represents the front end of a pickup truck or SUV. Side airbags designed for head protection are crucial because the barrier crashes into the side of the car right at the head level of the two dummies that are positioned in the driver seat and in the rear seat behind the driver.

"Side airbags were mostly optional in the 2006 round of small car tests," Nolan says. "A major change is that side airbags are standard in all of the seven small cars we tested this time around."

Small cars have grown especially popular as gasoline prices fluctuate and consumers become more conservation-minded. Nolan cautions that even though current models do a better job of protecting people in front, side, and rear crashes than earlier ones, small cars inherently afford less crash protection than bigger, heavier vehicles. "There's no escaping the laws of physics," Nolan says. "People in larger, heavier cars fare better in crashes with other vehicles and in single-vehicle crashes than people in smaller ones."

PT Cruiser earns poor ratings for side, rear protection: The Chrysler PT Cruiser is the only small car in the recent test series to earn poor marks in both side and rear evaluations. In the side test, measures recorded on the driver dummy indicate that in a real-world crash of similar severity, rib fractures and internal organ injuries would be likely, along with a possible pelvic fracture. The rear passenger dummy's head contacted the C-pillar during the test because this car doesn't have rear-seat side airbags. Measures recorded on the dummy indicate that serious neck injuries and a fractured pelvis would be possible in a crash of this severity.

The PT Cruiser's seat/head restraints are the only ones the Institute tested this time around that earn the lowest rating of poor for occupant protection in rear crashes. The seat/head restraint combinations in the Chevrolet HHR and Suzuki SX4 earn the next lowest rating of marginal. Looking at the larger group of 21 current small car models the Institute has rated, the PT Cruiser still has the worst seat/head restraint rating.

"The PT Cruiser doesn't offer the same crash protection level as other small cars," Nolan says. "For consumers who want to drive small cars, there are many good alternatives to the PT Cruiser, including the six Top Safety Pick winners the Institute announced last month. There are lots of good choices, too, among midsize and large cars."

Top Safety Pick recognizes vehicles that do the best job of protecting people in front, side, and rear crashes based on good ratings in Institute tests. Winners also must have electronic stability control (ESC), which research shows significantly reduces crash risk. The 2009 small car winners are the Honda Civic 4-door (except the Si model), Mitsubishi Lancer, and Toyota Corolla, all with optional ESC, and the Scion xB, Subaru Impreza, and Volkswagen Rabbit 4-door, all with standard ESC.

ESC should be standard: Among the small cars in this round of tests, only the Chevrolet HHR and Pontiac Vibe have standard ESC. It isn't available at all on the PT Cruiser and optional on the rest, including the Vibe's twin Toyota Matrix. ESC helps reduce rollovers, especially fatal single-vehicle ones. When ESC senses a vehicle is becoming unstable, it automatically engages to help a driver regain control and put the vehicle back in the intended travel direction. ESC lowers fatal rollover crash risk by as much as 70 percent. "Cars aren't involved in rollovers as often as SUVs and pickups, but when they do roll the consequences can be deadly," Nolan notes. "The smallest cars that most need this crash avoidance feature often don't have it."

Rear crashworthiness needs improving: Many automakers haven't paid as much attention to protection in rear crashes, compared with front and side, Nolan points out. Good seat/head restraints are key to preventing whiplash injuries. Neck sprain or strain is the most frequently reported crash injury in US insurance claims. When a vehicle is struck in the rear and driven forward, its seats accelerate occupants' torsos forward. Unsupported, the head will lag behind the forward torso movement, and the differential motion causes the neck to bend and stretch. The higher the torso acceleration, the more sudden the motion, the higher the forces on the neck, and the more likely a neck injury is to occur. Keeping the head and torso moving together is crucial to reducing whiplash injury risk. To accomplish this, the geometry of a head restraint has to be adequate - high enough to be near the back of the head. Then the seat structure and stiffness characteristics must be designed to work in concert with the head restraint to support an occupant's neck and head, accelerating them with the torso as the vehicle is pushed forward.

"In stop and go commuter traffic, you're more likely to get in a rear-end collision than any other kind of crash," Nolan says. "It's not a major engineering feat to design seats and head restraints that afford good protection in these common crashes." For example, when Toyota redesigned the Corolla for 2009 it incorporated active head restraints to help guard against whiplash injuries. Active head restraints are designed to move closer to the backs of occupants' heads in rear-end crashes.

Mini Cooper results: This minicar was redesigned for the 2007 model year, and it earned a good rating for frontal crash protection in a previous test. New side and rear tests were conducted to assess further design changes made for the most recent models. This minicar earns a good rating for rear protection and an acceptable rating for side protection. Measures recorded on the driver dummy indicate that a fractured pelvis would be possible in a side crash of the same severity, but there's low risk that other significant injuries would occur to the driver. For the rear passenger, rib fractures and/or internal organ injuries would be possible. ESC is newly standard for the 2009 model year.

How vehicles are evaluated: The Institute's frontal crashworthiness evaluations are based on results of 40 mph frontal offset crash tests. Each vehicle's overall evaluation is based on measurements of intrusion into the occupant compartment, injury measures recorded on a Hybrid III dummy in the driver seat, and analysis of slow-motion film to assess how well the restraint system controlled dummy movement during the test.

Side evaluations are based on performance in a crash test in which the side of a vehicle is struck by a barrier moving at 31 mph. The barrier represents the front end of a pickup or SUV. Ratings reflect injury measures recorded on two instrumented SID-IIs dummies, assessment of head protection countermeasures, and the vehicle's structural performance during the impact.

Rear crash protection is rated according to a two-step procedure. Starting points for the ratings are measurements of head restraint geometry - the height of a restraint and its horizontal distance behind the back of the head of an average-size man. Seat/ head restraints with good or acceptable geometry are tested dynamically using a dummy that measures forces on the neck. This test simulates a collision in which a stationary vehicle is struck in the rear at 20 mph. Seats without good or acceptable geometry are rated poor overall because they can't be positioned to protect many people.

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    • 1 Second Ago
      • 6 Years Ago
      The PT is old, so no surprise it's behind newer cars in safety.

      What's relevant is that the PT Cruiser is probably the best car Chrysler makes these days.
        • 6 Years Ago
        I think the 300 and Charger/Challenger HEMIs/SRT/R/T are Chrysler's coolest cars. Sad, because their other lineup lacks thrill.
      • 6 Years Ago
      Well the FACT is that Chrysler as a general RULE puts safety LAST -
      STYLE first safety LAST -
      on the other end of the spectrum is Saab and Volvo -
      but notice how Volvo has started embracing STYLE now, their SAFETY has gone down on the smallest model?
      This ISN'T the case w/ Saab - the 9-3 proves you can have both if the company cares enough to do so!
      • 6 Years Ago
      "The latest MINI Cooper was also smashed for science, and it performed fairly well for a car of its diminutive proportions"

      That's a very misleading statement. That seems to imply that smaller cars usually do worse or have a harder time with these tests. Actually quite the opposite is true. A smaller car SHOULD do far better in the front impact test because the resulting force of impact is less.
        • 6 Years Ago
        Re: Jake B "Except for when the F-250 involved in the collision rams its front bumper straight through your forehead. In that scenario, its not so nice being in a small car."

        Or when the crumpled, twisted wreckage of an F250 doesn't quite come to the hood ornament on my Freightliner after I head-on plow it 300 feet down the road. By this false, senseless train of thought we should all be driving tanks, is that right? Every driver is at risk, but the most maneuverable, highest safety engineered cars are usually the small ones.
        • 6 Years Ago
        What do you expect of a nation whose people have been advised for decades to drive the heaviest car they can afford? I read this most recently this year -- I believe it was in the Arizona AAA magazine -- one of the self-appointed road safety organizations was still pushing this myth.
      • 6 Years Ago
      can someone please tell me why they are testing the pt cruiser again when it hasn't been redesigned since it came out almost 9 years ago besides a "freshened' version with different headlights. of course it's going to be lower than all the newly designed cars. oh well. anyways good job toyota for good safety rating
      • 6 Years Ago
      Wow, the PT Crusier sucked in a front end collision and so did the other couple of american cars. You think after making it for 10 years it would be safe. The Suzuki and Mini did really well,
      • 6 Years Ago
      I'm sure that fact that the PT was "worst" will be the only headlines people will talk about. You know how Chrysler can't make anything "good". They'll completely ignore the fact that it's the oldest vehicle in the group and was only just beaten out by the HHR and the SX4.

      Go ahead people, please prove me wrong.
        • 6 Years Ago
        True that's it's the oldest one in the group, but they have the option of improving the car by adding supports and airbags without major redesign of the car
        • 6 Years Ago
        Well I'm going to criticize the FACT that it's the oldest car in the group.

        If Chrysler were to keep the car competitve, they should've tweaked the car in a regular basis to keep up with the trend/other manufacturers.
        Although redesigning this retro car really is a challenge. But it's okay because the car's going away in around 2009 or so.
        • 6 Years Ago
        This has little to do with the age of the design. It's about updating the design along the way. If the PT had side impact bags and curtains and better head restraints it would have been ok. The PT is a great product that deserved some updating along the way to keep it competitive. I will miss it when it goes.

        • 6 Years Ago
        I never said it was a good vehicle, all I was/am trying to point out is that it's the only vehicle that will get the headlines.

        I'm just tired of all the N.A. manufacturers getting dumped on is all. They made/make good vehicles, they made what "most" people wanted. They just have gotten hit at a bad time, just like "all" vehicle manufacturers.
      • 6 Years Ago
      i hate amreican cars they have no design or saftey and thats why they will fial
        • 6 Years Ago
        Have you ever owned an American Car???

        Have you ever owned a car???
        • 6 Years Ago
        You "fail" at spelling.
        • 6 Years Ago

        I'm shaking my head because your comment is just completely unjustified and can't be an opinion since you've got not justification... See how it loops back?
        • 6 Years Ago
        I hate you Torrent I love you Torrent.
        • 6 Years Ago
        1st of all: Use Mozilla. They have a spell checker.

        2nd of all: It's nice you tried to use my name. I'm surprised you can spell it.
        • 6 Years Ago
        cool story bro
        • 6 Years Ago
        which torrent? I think you're talking to the other torrent because I didn't say anything wrong but the other one did so I think you're talking to the other torrent..

        See how that loops back?
      • 6 Years Ago
      What the hell is the point of having the PT and the Sebring?!?!? Kill one of them, make a sexy design out of the remaining model and make a 5 door hatch variant. Keeping around this dead horse around is tantamount to what Ford did to the Taurus.
        • 6 Years Ago
        Yeah, how dare Chrysler sell both a midsize sedan and a compact 5-door.

      • 6 Years Ago
      Euro NCAP needs to toughen up their side crash tests. The IIHS crash test barrier is heavier and higher.

      Both the Astra and the MINI have five star Euro NCAP ratings.
      • 6 Years Ago
      There is way too much emphasis on safety, that makes the cars cost too much. I have been driving for 50 years and never been in an accident that required medical treatment. I have a car now that has 8 air bags, and I am usually the only person in it. I feel I am paying for a lot of so called safety that I do not neeed or want.
      • 6 Years Ago
      • 6 Years Ago

      # Torrent, the Wrangler is pretty cool too.
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