• Oct 22nd 2010 at 12:00AM
  • 150
Cars like the 2011 Ford Fiesta are touted for their saf... Cars like the 2011 Ford Fiesta are touted for their safety by manufacturers. But are the really safe? (Ford)

The American car market is being inundated with small cars. The new models abound, from the Nissan Juke to the Ford Fiesta, Fiat’s 500 to Mazda’s 2. There are even more coming: Saab has a 9-2 in the works, BMW plans a sub-1 Series car, and the next generation of Mercedes compacts currently available in Europe will be getting makeovers for American buyers.

The force behind the wave is obvious: The thumbscrews on fuel economy standards and emissions levels have been turned, and there’s a good chance they’ll be twisted again, as the feds are considering raising Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) to 62 miles per gallon by 2025. With trucks and luxury cars (and their larger profit margins) presenting a difficult target, carmakers are throwing everything they can at the rest of their lineups. Mid-sized cars offer possibilities, but there is only so much blood to be squeezed from these stones, what with shoppers annually requesting more room and more power. That makes small, budget-conscious cars the default play to address CAFE needs.

But the assault at the diminutive end persistently raises the issue of safety. Manufacturers crow that their small cars are safer than ever, boasting features like Honda's “ACE” safety system that channels energy throughout the car and Volvo's use of four different kinds of steel. Consumers, on the other hand, often ask, "What happens if you hit that car with an SUV or a semi?" In between them are bodies like the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) and European New Car Assessment Program (Euro NCAP), all of which issue safety ratings.

Beyond The Test Results

If you look at the test scores from these organizations, most of the time it seems the answer to the safety question is in the affirmative. The 2009 Honda Fit (the Honda Jazz in Europe) got five stars from the Euro NCAP test, a set of Good ratings (the highest rating) from the IIHS, and a five-star rating from the NHTSA.

In April 2009, however, the IIHS attempted to put the safety of small cars into context. It pitted three little cars against mid-sized cars from the same maker, conducting frontal offset tests at 40 miles per hour. The matchups were: Toyota Yaris vs. Camry, Smart Fortwo vs. Mercedes C-Class, and Honda Fit vs. Accord. The results made headlines, with the IIHS concluding, "The Honda Fit, Smart Fortwo, and Toyota Yaris are good performers in the Institute's frontal offset barrier test, but all three are poor performers in the frontal collisions with midsize cars. These results reflect the laws of the physical universe, specifically principles related to force and distance."

Quite simply, the budget offerings took their lumps and so did the dummies inside.

But does this mean that small cars aren't safe? Absolutely not. What it does mean is that small cars aren't as safe as larger cars. Let's be honest – this should be obvious to anyone. The laws of physics aren’t suspended for anyone, so anyone with even a passing understanding of force should realize that large, heavy things will have harmful effects when they collide at high speed with smaller, lighter things.

First, though, let's get a persistent nugget of absurdity out of the way. To those who ask, "What if you get hit by a semi in one of those small cars?" the truth is that if you get hit by a semi, even if you're in another semi, you are not going to like the results. A loaded 18-wheeler will put forty tons of massive hurt on absolutely anything. When Top Gear's Jeremy Clarkson ran a Renault semi into a brick wall, he destroyed the wall and, in his own words, "I emerged from my high-speed, head-on impact in what can only be described as screaming agony. I couldn't walk. I couldn't talk. I couldn't think."

According to the IIHS, small car fatality rates are greater than those for mid-sized and large cars. As of 2008, for every one million registered vehicles from one to three years old, there were 91 fatalities in small cars versus 56 in mid-sized and 63 in large cars. Sport utility vehicles were relatively safer still, with 28 fatalities per million in large SUVs at the low end and 44 fatalities for small SUVs at the top. Only pickups, due to rollover fatalities, were in the same league as small cars, with small pickups posting a 107-per-million fatality rate.

Same As It Ever Was

Beyond physics, the key to the data is that this state of affairs is no different than it's ever been.

"Small cars are much safer than they used to be," said Russ Rader at the IIHS, "but so are big cars. The disparity in death rates between the two is about what it always has been. People in the smallest cars are about twice as likely to die in crashes than people in the largest ones."

Nor does it help that drivers of compact cars are more likely to test these results more often. "Statistically," said Rader, "they're involved in more crashes than big cars."

When asked if that might have an effect on the fatality stats – perhaps the fatality rate for small cars was skewed by their numbers – Anne Fleming at the IIHS responded, "It doesn't matter how you chop up the numbers, by collision claims for vehicle damage for example, even with exposure factored in the result is the same. Small cars get in more accidents."

Manufacturers Respond

Although the IIHS fatality statistics are difficult to counter, there are other issues behind the numbers. The IIHS test was conducted with both cars going 40 mph, which is an exceptionally rare event.

"The IIHS test," said Brian Lyons, safety and quality communications manager at Toyota, "is equivalent to an 80 mph closing speed, a speed and energy higher than 99.1 percent of all real world crashes."

In fact, it's even rarer than 99.1 percent, says Lyons. "The real question for a 'comprehensive safety assessment',” he said, "is how well the vehicle’s safety systems perform in the limitless variety of real-world accidents. According to NHTSA data, less than 0.06 percent of all frontal crashes occur at the crash severity selected by the IIHS."

Honda feels similarly about the details not conveyed in the results. "Yes, there are a few things that are overlooked," wrote one of Honda's safety experts. "The Fit has the lowest fatality rate amongst small cars. Individually, the Fit and Civic fare well, whereas the class may not. Secondly, other things contribute to fatalities -- like demographics and household income. Small cars attract the youngest and oldest buyers, which, as a demographic, have the highest rate of fatalities. Also, small cars attract buyers with lower household incomes, which also tend to have higher fatalities."

Speaking of causation, the biggest overall cause of accidents is drivers under the influence of alcohol or some other impairing substance. Whenever you look at accident statistics, if you take incidents out in which alcohol was not a factor the numbers can drop by up to fifty percent.

Carmakers will also say that a car's ability to avoid accidents also plays a role in its relative safety, yet many of best safety features are simply priced out of the range of less expensive offerings. Volvo didn't have any of its cars in the IIHS crash test, but provided commentary on the things small cars miss out on and why.

"Consumer Reports 'Safety' ratings account for avoidance as one element of safety," said Volvo spokesman James Hope. "Systems like Blind Spot identifications, adaptive cruise control with auto braking, roll stability control, low speed accident avoidance, and other systems are geared to avoid an accident. In small cars these systems could add a good 30-plus percent to overall cost. Also, adding steel structures to absorb energy add costs that are difficult to pass along in that segment."

Should You Buy One?

In spite of the data – and physics – that reflects poorly on small cars when it comes to safety, even the IIHS doesn't want to give them a bad rap. It says the test was done just to keep everyone honest and informed.

"We would love for people to buy small cars," said Fleming at the IIHS. "We only do these tests when we run into a spate of information that claims small cars are just as safe as large cars. They're not. And that will ever be the case as long as the laws of physics hold."

Nevertheless, buyers are going to continue to buy small cars. And they should, but making sure to do the proper research on safety before purchase.

"Shoppers looking to buy a small car with safety as a priority," said Rader at the IIHS, "can find small models now that are much more crashworthy than small cars of the past. The Ford Fiesta – the only minicar that earns the Institute's Top Safety Pick status – and Subaru Impreza are Top Safety Picks in Institute crash tests for example. When buying a small car, it's especially important to buy the most crashworthy one that you can find."

Top Safety Picks 2010 from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety
Buick LaCrosse
Ford Taurus
Hyundai Genesis (built after 1/2010)
Lincoln MKS
Mercedes E class (built after 1/2010)
Volvo S80

Honda Civic (4-door (except Si) with optional ESC)
Kia Forte (built after 10/2009)
Kia Soul
Nissan Cube
Scion xB
Subaru Impreza (except WRX)
Toyota Corolla
VW Golf (4-door)

Audi A3
Chevrolet Malibu (built after 11/2009)
Chrysler Sebring (4-door w/optional ESC)
Dodge Avenger (with optional ESC)
Hyundai Sonata (2011 models)
Mercedes C class
Subaru Legacy
Subaru Outback
Volkswagen Jetta (sedan)
Volkswagen Passat (sedan)
Volvo C30 (2010-11 models)
Dodge Journey
Subaru Tribeca
Volvo XC60
Volvo XC90

Honda Element
Jeep Patriot (w/optional side torso airbags)
Subaru Forester
Volkswagen Tiguan

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    • 1 Second Ago
      • 8 Months Ago
      No Small car , or Big car for that matter could survive a head on collision with a semi, thats just common sense, but how many head on collisions are recorded each year?? Not many..so lets keep the small cars that give great gas mileage and great safety on the road and moving forward if you hit a Semi you won't need to worry about Gas Economy or anything else a Huge gas guzzling Hearse will take you to your final resting place..
      • 8 Months Ago
      I am an Air Force and seek ing someone .I need a woman who can love me back ...I also uploaded my hot photos on kissmilita ry.c omunder the name of jay55..It's the largest and best club for seek ing Army, Navy, Marines, Air Force, Police Force, and the admirers of those who wear the uniform.I just hope you don't mind me being a soldier ...Please Check it out!I'm serious
      • 8 Months Ago
      There was a video on YouTube that shows a Smart car hit a Jersey barrier at an outrageous speed. The impact moved the barrier and, as you would expect, car parts went everywhere. The passenger compartment was remarkably intact. However, the G-forces generated by the rapid deceleration due to the crash would have killed anyone inside. The only good thing about this is that it would have allowed an open casket funeral for the passengers. Clearly, a motorized soda can is no match for, well, anything else out there on the road.
      • 8 Months Ago
      They call them smart cars until you have an accident!!!!! Then they are not so smart....You will be smarting for sure!!
      JACK & LINDA
      • 8 Months Ago
      • 8 Months Ago
      I've been driving for over half a century and never had more than a fender bender. if you are a careful driver and avoid the idiots before they get a chance to hit you, your odds are better in a small car becaseu you can maneuver it into spaces the large cars couldn't get into to avoid collisions. Also, what I save in gas and car cost would pay for a lot of repairs and does pay for insurance!
      • 8 Months Ago
      Hi, captainharlock99, I just checked out that video on You tube and was astonished at the results, considering all the safety hype Volvo advertised. I'm still astonished. Thanks for the information "You Tube from Fifth Gear "Renault Modus vs. Volvo".
      • 8 Months Ago
      "What happens if you hit that car with....?" "In between them are bodies....." If the writer thinks this is a funny play on words he needs to rethink.
      • 8 Months Ago
      yah rite. they should ban u from freedom of speech. small cars suck I install carpet and i could never get the materials to the job in a mini van or one of those new ford transits. I roll an E 250 and I spend $100.00 a week on gas. and Im not complaining So all u people can suck it with ur compact cars. you probably dnt drive that much any way so how much does it really save u. ooh you went from $25.00 a week on gas in ur paid off car to $15.00 a week and a car payment of at least $25.00 a week and ur insurance is probably higher becuase u have to have full coverage so whos saving. and dont say you'll save when its paid off becuz by the time its paid off it will b time for a new car.
      • 8 Months Ago
      Have driven ,also been passenger in small cars & felt reasonably safe. All this changed for me after we bought our Honda Pilot. Maybe it's wrong to feel this,but now I am very uncomfortable in small cars. Our highways are so congested & with so many things that distract the drivers, even little things that provide some measure of safety are appreciated. Small cars actually frighten me now because I see them as "Death Traps" waiting to happen. I believe that our time is up when it's up, but even a "false" sense of security is better than nothing. All drivers need to realize that safety is everyone's responsibity & not to take for granted that size will protect us. -----------------------TSMF
      • 8 Months Ago
      rbblum Oct 23, 2010 8:26 PM The US government (the Obama administration and czars) should mandate all large vehicles off the road and restrict semi-trucks to only be used from 2AM til 5AM daily Restrict semis to three hours of operation? That will put a dent in your pocketbook in getting goods from point A to point B. Actually the truckers are under stricter regulation than the moron that only needs to pass the absolute minimum to obtain a license to operate a motor vehicle. Truckers and motorcoach operators are required to have a complete physical every two years. They are required to keep a running log of their time driving, off duty, on duty not driving, etc. Even if you have a day off, you have to log that. The people that cause most of the wrecks are the regular everyday automobile operator. Why? Most likely they are not doing what they should be doing while operating their vehicle and that is concentrating on operating their vehicle. Their mind is focused elsewhere or they're on their cell phone for some "important" message that had to be taken right away or they're texting or eating or reading or applying make up. Most of the wrecks I have seen were automobile/automobile. Not all that many are automobile/semi.
      • 8 Months Ago
      Ban large gas guzzling cars and trucks thsat are not used in a commercial interprise.
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