The Hyundai Elantra is one example of how automakers ca... The Hyundai Elantra is one example of how automakers can improve on a car's safety rating. (Hyundai)
Americans often cite safety concerns for their decision to buy bigger cars, but a recent safety test showed some small cars perform better in crash tests than larger vehicles.

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety gave its top pick to six of 13 small cars it evaluated. None of the cars tested earned a poor rating.

The scores are a stark turnaround from a few years back, when small cars failed to earn top safety ratings.

It's good news for buyers, who are increasingly considering small cars because of high gas prices.

"The list of cars with the best fuel economy now includes those with the highest crash test ratings in their class, too," says David Zuby, chief research officer for IIHS.

In 2006, only three small cars earned the top safety pick designation. But the IIHS admits the standards then were less stringent than today's testing.

Still, the best safety measures can't overcome basic physics, the IIHS says. So crashes between a big truck and a small car will still likely be worse for the people inside the small car.

"That's why it's important that the crashworthiness designs of smaller cars be as good as possible," Zuby says. Additionally, seat belts make a difference. An occupant in a small car wearing a seat belt will do better in a crash than an SUV occupant without a seatbelt.

Small cars used to have very little safety equipment installed on them. Now they all come with standard side airbags. Many come with electronic stability control, which helps prevent crashes. And automakers have increased the strength of the cars' steel frames, keeping the cars from crushing occupants in frontal crashes.

Because of that, newer models are better than their older counterparts, IIHS says.

Here are the six IIHS small car top picks:

2012 Ford Focus
The 2012 version earned good marks in front, side, rollover and rear crash tests. It comes with electronic stability control as standard equipment, technology that can reduce traffic fatality rates by 50%, IIHS says.

2012 Honda Civic 4-door
IIHS tested the four-door version of this popular small car, and it scored good marks all around. It also comes with standard electronic stability control.

2011 Hyundai Elantra
IIHS held up the Elantra as an example of how the automakers can improve safety over time. The 2001 to 2006 models of the Elantra scored poorly. "The Elantra has gone from one of our lowest-rated small cars to a top safety pick," Zuby says. It scored good marks on all four crash tests and also comes with standard electronic stability control.

2011 Lexus CT 200h
This hybrid gets 43 mpg in the city, 40 mpg on the highway, and top scores in safety.

2011 Nissan Juke
The all-new Nissan Juke got good scores on all four crash tests, and has standard electronic stability control. The cool, stylish car gets about 30 mph city and 34 mpg highway.

2011 Toyota Prius
This is the most fuel-efficient car on the safety list. The hybrid Prius gets about 51 mpg in city driving and about 48 mpg on the highway. It got the highest (good) ratings on all four crash tests, and also has standard electronic stability control.


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