The 2012 Chevrolet Sonic (Autoblog).
Chevrolet earned bragging rights this week when the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration gave the small car a 5-Star crash rating, better than its Ford Fiesta rival and better than some Asian competitors in its category.

But the exemplary safety rating for the small hatchback also spotlights how safety ratings can be misconstrued and confused.

Does the fact that the Sonic earned a 5-Star crash safety rating mean that it is as safe as a large car or SUV with a 5-Star rating? No. In fact, the rating just means that it has the highest possible rating among all the small cars that NHTSA has tested.

Are small cars as safe as large cars and SUVs if the driver is in a crash? Statistically, no.

According to 2007 figures compiled and studied by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, there were 96 fatalities per million registered vehicles for the small car category, which would have included the Sonic's predecessor, the Chevy Aveo. That figure dropped to 62 fatalities for the midsize class of cars, which includes cars like Ford Fusion and Chevy Malibu, and 64 per million for large sedans like Toyota Avalon and Ford Crown Victoria.

SUV crash safety is statistically even better. The death rate for a small SUV like Toyota RAV4 was 48 fatalities per million, and large SUVs like Ford Explorer and Chevy Suburban was 47 fatalities per million.

"Understanding how the crash ratings work is very important to car buyers," says AOL Autos Editor-in-Chief David Kiley. "There is a cultural preference in this country for larger vehicles and SUVs, and many believe that they aren't really safe unless they are driving something big."

The reality is more complicated than that, says Kiley. "A small car like a Sonic in T-bone accident with a Chevy Suburban will always favor the Suburban because of the mass of that vehicle, but what is most important in whatever size vehicle you are in is wearing a safety belt, having as many up-to-date safety systems as one can afford, proper tire maintenance and good, sound driving habits and techniques."

The lowest death rate among all vehicle types, as measured in 2007, was 35 per million for very large sedans, such Mercedes S Class, which are both heavier and better equipped.

As for the Sonic, not only did it earn an overall rating of 5 Stars, but it also earned five stars in from and side crash tests. It earned a slightly lower score of four stars in rollover tests.

As for the Sonic: "We developed Sonic to exceed customer expectations of subcompacts in terms of segment-leading safety features," said Gay Kent, General Motors' executive director of vehicle safety. "From the largest vehicles in our lineup to the smallest, we are putting overall crash-worthiness and state-of-the-art safety technologies at the top of the list of must-haves."

While the Sonic and several other small cars were named "Top Safety Picks" by the IIHS, NHTSA, part of the federal government's Department of Transportation, hasn't fully crash tested all the cars that Sonic competes against. The Honda Fit and new Hyundai Accent, for example, have not been tested yet.

The Sonic's standard safety features include 10 airbags, traction control, anti-lock brakes and it comes with General Motors' OnStar system with automatic crash response--a service that alerts emergency first responders when the airbags deploy in the car.

Bottom line and advice for buyers

So what's the bottom line? 5-Star crash ratings from NHTSA and "Top Safety Pick" ratings from IIHS show that you are far more likely to survive an accident if your car is among the highly rated, no matter the size of the vehicle.

But because small cars, which are desirable for their fuel efficiency, are statistically not as safe for their occupants in a crash as larger vehicles, buyers should try to buy all the safety options they can when purchasing a small car. And it bears mentioning: Always buckle seat-belts.

The fatality statistics compiled by IIHS do not take into account several factors that can influence the outcome of statistical analysis. For example, small cars have historically been driven by a disproportionate number of young drivers and lower-earning drivers who would have been less likely to opt for pricey safety features.

The good news for all drivers is that more safety equipment is being mandated into every car, thus leveling the playing field a bit for buyers of small cars, and automakers are offering more optional safety features in small cars than they used to.

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