Crash Tests Show Small Cars Fare Poorly

IIHS video frame reveals amount of damage to smaller car (left).

When fuel prices soared to well over $4.00 a gallon in 2008, many motorists saw what seemed like the end of cheap gasoline and began looking at subcompact fuel economy cars that could deliver more miles per gallon.  However, ditching the V8 pickup truck in favor of the cute four-cylinder hatchback may come with a hefty price.


"There are good reasons people buy minicars," says Insurance Institute for Highway Safety president Adrian Lund. "They're more affordable, and they use less gas. But the safety trade-offs are clear from our new tests. Equally clear are the implications when it comes to fuel economy. If automakers downsize cars so their fleets use less fuel, occupant safety will be compromised. However, there are ways to serve fuel economy and safety at the same time."


The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) recently conducted a new type of simulated automotive crash that presents realistic outcomes and the findings show that the laws of physics prevail. Small vehicles typically do not fare well against larger vehicles in a head-on crash.


The IIHS simulated three front-to-front crashes each involving two different sized cars from the same automaker and the results showed that extra vehicle weight and size enhances occupant protection. Below is the synopsis of all three tests:


HONDA ACCORD vs. HONDA FIT. The first test had the Honda Accord going head-to-head against the Honda Fit. While crash test results were judged to be good for the Accord driver dummy, the same could not be said for the Fit human stand-in. There were indications of severe leg injuries and head injuries after significant intrusion into the Fit’s passenger compartment. The Honda scores a good rating with the IIHS, while the Fit rates as poor in the Institute’s testing.


MERCEDES C CLASS vs. SMART FORTWO. As the Smart car struck the Mercedes C Class, the tiny Smart actually went airborne and rotated around 450 degrees, resulting in excessive movement of the test dummy.  Extensive intrusion into the driver’s head and feet space spelled out a likely scenario of very serious injury to both to the driver’s head and lower extremities.


“The Smart is the smallest car we tested, so it’s not surprising that its performance looked worse than the Fit’s. Still both fall into the poor category, and it’s hard to distinguish between poor and poorer,” Institute president Adrian Lund said.


TOYOTA CAMRY vs. TOYOTA YARIS. In the collision between both Toyotas, the Yaris took more brunt with far more intrusion with the smaller car having its door nearly sheared off.  Even though both driver seats tipped forward, the Yaris’ steering wheel moved excessively during the test. Test results showed similar results as found in the Fit and Smart with likely significant head injury, excessive force on the neck and right leg showing severe injury. Yaris earned a poor rating, while the Camry received an acceptable score.


"Though much safer than they were a few years ago, minicars as a group do a comparatively poor job of protecting people in crashes, simply because they're smaller and lighter," Lund says. "In collisions with bigger vehicles, the forces acting on the smaller ones are higher, and there's less distance from the front of a small car to the occupant compartment to 'ride down' the impact. These and other factors increase injury likelihood."


The current structure of fuel economy standards places a target of 27.5 miles per gallon on an automaker’s entire fleet. This gives automakers the incentive to push small car sales heavily to offset those of their larger and heavier models that fare worse in fuel economy, satisfying the government’s overall target value. 


With the Obama administration setting into motion a new fuel economy system that institutes a size-based sytem, vehicles are expected to have higher fuel economy standards across the board, which often means smaller and lighter vehicles, with less emphasis on class-leading horsepower.  According to the Institute, less powerful cars are shown to have lower crash rates.


Another proposal touted by the Institute with echoing sentiment from some lawmakers is to again impose a national speed limit of 55 miles per hour.


“Fifty-five was adopted to save fuel, but it turned out to be one of the most dramatic safety successes in motor vehicle history,” Lund concluded.


The national maximum 55 mph speed limit was first enacted in 1974 and is stated to have saved thousands of barrels of fuel per day. According to statistics, highway deaths declined about 20 percent the first year from 55,511 to 46,402.


For more information, visit the Insurance Institute of Highway Safety online at www.iihs.org.