Subcompact Car Crash Tests Yield Sobering Results

With fuel prices rising, subcompact cars, or “minicars,” are becoming more popular, and new models are introduced regularly. But how do those very small and very light vehicles fare in auto accidents? According to a recent report by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), perhaps not so well.

The IIHS recently subjected 11 popular minicar models to its toughest crash test, and just one protected its crash test dummies well enough to earn a rating of “acceptable.” To be sure, the IIHS tests — especially the small overlap front crash test — are very strenuous.

In the federal government’s frontal crash test, the car strikes a rigid barrier, fully head-on, at 35 mph. The IIHS moderate overlap front crash test sends each car into a deformable barrier at 40 mph, with just 40 percent of the vehicle’s front end (on the driver’s side) absorbing the impact. This concentrates the force of the collision onto a smaller area of the car, increasing the likelihood of structural failure and “injury” to the crash test dummy.

The IIHS small overlap front crash test, introduced in 2012, is tougher still. It too is conducted at 40 mph, but just 25 percent of the vehicle’s front end (on the driver’s side) absorbs the impact, and the barrier the vehicle strikes is rigid. This is the type of impact a vehicle would experience if it struck a large tree or utility pole head-on on the driver’s side.

The IIHS gives each car an overall rating and ratings for each of several distinct categories. The possible ratings are “good,” “acceptable,” “marginal” and “poor.” Just one of the 11 cars tested — the Chevrolet Spark — earned an overall “acceptable” rating. The rest were rated either “marginal” or “poor”, including the popular Honda Fit, Toyota Yaris, Toyota Prius c and Ford Fiesta.

All vehicles were given structural ratings of “marginal” or “poor”, but the Spark scored better overall because the dummy’s movement was better restricted and showed lower injury levels.

The IIHS reminds consumers that the Spark compares favorably only with other vehicles in its own class. The ratings the institute bestows cannot be compared across different weight classes of automobile. Among the 17 “small cars” the IIHS has tested (which are just slightly larger and heavier than minicars), five earned “good” ratings and another five earned “acceptable” ratings.

If you decide a that smaller car is right for you, it is very important to check out crash test ratings and, of course, drive cautiously. If you are involved in a serious auto accident, you need all the help you can get.