2011 Ford Fiesta gets IIHS Top Safety Pick – Click above to watch video after the jump

We have mountains of respect for the men and women who work at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. After being invited to the institute's Charlottesville, Virginia facility for a front-row seat to the 2011 Ford Fiesta's frontal-offset test, we can honestly say that if we had their job, we'd have a hard time getting into just any old car ever again. While the Blue Oval's new sub-compact passed its battery of evaluations with flying colors (being the first and only minicar to earn a Top Safety Pick nod since the institute added a rollover test), we were also treated to a tour of some of the more poorly engineered models from the recent past.

Manufacturers have made an impressive amount progress on the safety front in the last decade, thanks largely to a close partnership with the IIHS. The institute has worked to revise crash tests to more accurately reflect the composition of vehicles on the road. One of its primary functions is to identify crashes where people die in otherwise well-rated vehicles and to adjust crash tests accordingly. While the public identifies the institute with bouncing perfectly good cars off of chunks of aluminum and concrete, the truth is that crash testing is only a small part of the IIHS mission. Of course, it's also the most fun part. Follow the jump to take a look at a video of the Fiesta's frontal-offset test.

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  • New IIHS crash barrier, left. NHTSA crash barrier, right.
  • Five-star NHTSA rated Ford Focus hit by Ford Explorer at 31 mph.
  • Smart For Two
  • Few manufacturers were prepared for the IIHS roof strength standards.
  • 2005 Mitsubishi Lancer after new side-impact test at 31 mph
  • Broken B-pillar in a 2005 Mitsubishi Lancer after 31 mph impact
  • 2008 Mitsubishi Lancer after 31 mph side-impact test
  • Pontiac Transport after 40 mph frontal offset test
  • Pontiac Transport after 40 mph frontal offset test
  • Toyota Sienna after 40 mph frontal offset test
  • 2010 Chevrolet Malibu after new semi-under ride research
  • 2010 Chevrolet Malibu after new semi-under ride research
  • 2010 Chevrolet Malibu after new crash research

Some photos by Zach Bowman / Copyright ©2010 AOL

Walking around the test hall, it's impossible to argue against the benefit of the institute's work. In the late '90s, most vehicles were still being tested for side-impact collisions using barriers designed to replicate the front-end of the majority of the vehicles on the road in 1982. You know, back when an SUV was something you used to get to the fishing cabin, not to ferry the kids to and from the mall. After looking around and realizing that status-quo on the road no longer looked like the nose of a '79 LTD, the IIHS introduced a new barrier based on the average ride height and hood height of SUVs.

The change was enormous. Cars like the Ford Focus, which had fared well in both IIHS and NHTSA tests, suddenly showed weaknesses that hadn't been apparent beforehand, and manufacturers scrambled to meet the new standard. Two Mitsubishi Lancers hang on the wall as a demonstration of the kind of change that the new barrier wrought. On the bottom, a 2005 model sits with its B pillar cut in two from a 31 mph impact in which the driver would have most certainly had to have been vacuumed from the car. Up above, a 2008 model fared much better thanks to additional bracing and plenty of air bags.

What a difference a few years makes.

Since then, the biggest change to the IIHS testing has come in the form of the new rollover test. The institute has been giving vehicles rollover ratings since 2001, but a 2008 study found that vehicles with strong roofs significantly reduce the risk of death or injury in the event of a rollover. In order to receive a Good rollover rating, a vehicle must withstand four-times its weight applied on one corner of the roof.

In the case of the 2011 Fiesta, the tiny compact managed to take over five times its weight before the roof exceeded the intrusion parameters set aside by the IIHS – not too shabby.

Since the institute only tests one car per day, we were only able to be on hand for the decidedly more dramatic frontal offset test, in which one shiny Fiesta sedan was rammed into a concrete and aluminum block at 40 mph. We'll let you watch the video to see that one for yourself. While the mechanical carnage was impressive, the Fiesta's passenger compartment was uncompromised, netting the car the final Good rating it needed to sweep the board.

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