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Standing Tall: Are Smallest New Crossovers Safer Than Small Sedans?

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2015 Honda HR-V

2015 Honda HR-V

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Compact crossovers like the Honda CR-V and Ford Escape have long been popular sedan substitutes for small or growing families. And now, at last, there’s a new crop of even smaller crossovers on the way.

Led by the Buick Encore, and soon to include the closely related Chevrolet Trax, as well as the Honda HR-V and Mazda CX-3 (and potentially also already including the MINI Cooper Countryman and Subaru XV Crosstrek), this segment of the market is staged for rapid growth—by empty-nester couples, small families, and even those who just want a little extra space in their small commuter car.

Most of these models are shy of 170 inches long, which places them about a foot shorter than those popular compacts. They’re also a bit narrower, which should make them even easier to park. And they’re a few hundred pounds lighter than those well-established compact crossovers.

But their relatively small size and lighter weight will almost certainly be a cause for concern to some safety-minded shoppers.

Are those new models a safe bet? It all comes down to relative size and weight, as well as the crash-test ratings that they end up earning from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) and the federal government.

A step up in safety from a mini, but tread carefully

Compared to subcompact cars, they should be a solid step ahead in protection. “If people are moving up from a minicar, for example, to one of these subcompact SUVs, they will benefit from the additional weight,” summed IIHS spokesman Russ Rader.

The answer might not be quite as clear for those who are moving ‘down’ in size from larger compact sedans or mid-size cars, those stepping ‘up’ from other subcompact sedans or hatchbacks will likely be making a step up in relative safety.

That’s because real-world accident data supports a clear correlation: that a lighter vehicle will always be at a disadvantage in a collision with a heavier one. It’s an established correlation, and it shows in the rate of injuries and fatalities.

“If safety is of paramount concern, then it’s best to stick with vehicles that are bigger and heavier than those in the smallest size classes,” said Rader.

Simply put, the IIHS maintains that people are less likely to be killed or injured in a bigger, heavier vehicle. A top-rated compact car doesn’t provide the same real-world protection as a top-rated full-size SUV, for instance.

Rollover had previously been a serious concern for taller, narrower vehicles such as these, but with the introduction of finely tuned electronic stability control systems, as well as better roof-strength protection, it’s no longer as much of an issue.

Taller is actually better in crashes

“The advantage for SUVs may be connected to their taller profile,” says the IIHS. “For one thing, the taller a vehicle is, the less likely it is to underride another vehicle in a crash.” The Institute continues to suggest that protection might be better in side-impact crashes as well because the point of impact is lower in the body, reducing the chances of critical injury.

2015 Buick Encore

2015 Buick Encore

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U.S. crash tests are only out so far for one of these models, the Buick Encore; and while the Encore did quite well in IIHS testing it completely failed the Institute’s relatively new small overlap frontal impact test, with a rating of ‘poor’ indicating a higher-than-typical chance of injuries in an offset crash with another vehicle, or a tree or utility pole.

Yes, it’s reasonable to expect that, versus subcompact cars, rates of fatality and serious injury will be lower for subcompact crossovers. But especially if you’re downsizing from a larger crossover or sedan, and have some expectations of preserving your level of occupant safety, choose wisely.

Study the crash-test ratings, read the Safety section of full reviews, and don’t settle.

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