Which Small Cars Are Safest? New IIHS Test Helps Answer That

August 7, 2013
Not sure which small-car model is best for you? If safety is one of your priorities you might want to give the Honda Civic, or perhaps the Dodge Dart, a boost on your list of possibilities.

New test results from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) put those models on top, among a dozen small-car models tested, while the current versions of the Nissan Sentra, Kia Soul, and Kia Forte had some more worrisome results.

The 2013 Dodge Dart, Ford Focus, and Hyundai Elantra—as well as the 2014 Scion tC—all earn second-best 'acceptable' ratings and qualify (along with the Civic, of course) for the “Top Safety Pick+” designation.

The relatively new test measures forces and studies the vehicle structure and occupant protection in a 40-mph crash in which the front corner of the vehicle hits a tree, utility pole, or even another vehicle. This is the first time that a wide range of small cars (compacts or subcompacts) have been run through it.

According to the IIHS, this particular crash situation accounts for about a quarter of the serious injuries sustained in frontal crashes.

Sentra, Soul, and Forte among lowest-rated

Models that didn't perform nearly as well include the Chevrolet Sonic, Volkswagen Beetle, and Chevrolet Cruze. And of those three lowest performers (Sentra, Soul, and Forte), the Forte was the lowest-rated model, with concerning results for Structure, Restraints and Kinematics, and Hip and Thigh forces—indicating a high likelihood of injury in that latter category. All three of those lowest-rated models also had injury concern in the Lower Leg and Foot areas.

It should be noted that the 2014 Kia Forte is a redesigned model with a new structure, while the Kia Soul tested was a 2013 model, and a completely redesigned 2014 Kia Soul is due soon.

Civic at the top

The Civic, which had been tested earlier this year, was the first compact to earn the top 'good' rating in the small overlap test, and both the Civic Coupe and Civic Sedan models get the top rating, thanks to some structural improvements that Honda ushered in for 2013.

So far, 25 vehicles of all classes have earned the Top Safety Pick+ designation.

Alongside the results, the IIHS had an interesting observation, based on its test findings: That as a group, in the same test, these small cars fared worse than their mid-size (mainstream-model) counterparts but fared better than small SUVs (crossovers) overall.

Airbag issues on some

The test is particularly challenging for automakers and their safety engineers, as the vehicle (and structure) tends to shear sideways in the collision, moving the dummy's head away from the normal airbag deployment area. In the Beetle's test, for instance, the seat-mounted head-torso side airbag didn't deploy, while the seatbelt allowed the dummy to hit its head on the dashboard. And in the worst-performing Forte, the dummy's head hit the windshield pillar and instrument panel.

2013 Nissan Sentra - POOR rating in IIHS small overlap frontal test

2013 Nissan Sentra - POOR rating in IIHS small overlap frontal test

“In the worst cases safety cages collapsed, driver airbags moved sideways with unstable steering columns and the dummy’s head hit the instrument panel,” noted David Zuby, the chief research officer of the IIHS. Zuby also noted that some side-curtain airbags didn't deploy or provide enough coverage.

Thanks to these test results, which you can peruse over at the IIHS, we have another meaningful differentiator of what could make one car significantly safer than another. And among small cars—based on what we see here—it's likely that there's a surprisingly wide range in protection.



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