Crash Tests: Small Cars vs. Big Cars

Small Cars Getting Better, but Still Not the Best

In December 2008, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), Arlington, Va., released new crash-test results for seven small cars that showed a "huge improvement" over tests from 2006, according to Joe Nolan, Institute senior vice president. All seven cars got the highest rating, "good," for frontal crashes.

The cars were the 2009 Chevrolet HHR, Chrysler PT Cruiser, Ford Focus, Hyundai Elantra, Saturn Astra, Suzuki SX4, and Toyota Matrix.

Although only the SX4 and Matrix were rated good in a side crash, 11 of 21 current small car models have earned Institute good ratings for side protection.

Rear impacts are still a problem, because the seats and headrests still need improvement. Only the Ford Focus got a good rating in the rear collision; the Chrysler PT Cruiser earned a poor rating for rear impacts.

The crash tests are violent: The frontal test, for example, strikes the car at 40 mph. Some carmakers question the severity of the tests, but Nolan says, "40,000-plus people die in crashes each year, mostly in severe crashes." The side-impact tests are particularly tough for small cars, since they simulate a pickup-truck bumper that can strike the crash-dummy's head unless side airbags provide good protection.

IIHS groups its results by auto size. Since most buyers already have chosen what size of car to buy, this approach allows buyers to fine-tune their purchases with safety in mind, Nolan says.

IIHS gives the 2009 Honda Fit the highest safety rating among mini-cars. Among 2009 small cars, Subaru Impreza, Scion xB, Honda Civic, Mitsubishi Lancer, Volkswagen Rabbit, and Toyota Corolla (all with standard side air bags and electronic stability control) got top ratings. Because about half of fatal passenger-vehicle crashes involve a single vehicle, the Institute strongly favors electronic stability control, which greatly reduces the risk of rollovers.

Size will matter even more now with increased restrictions due to the Obama Administration's fuel-economy and emissions initiative. Although small cars are getting safer, says Nolan, "there's no doubt that small cars offer less safety than large cars, everything else being equal."

If you're looking to purchase a vehicle, Harvard University Credit Union is here to help. For more information check out our Auto Buying Help Center or view one of our Interactive Coaches. You can also stop by any of our branch locations, email us or call us at (617) 495-4460.


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