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Small-car manufacturers get safety wake-up

The automotive industry got a wake-up call today as results were announced for the new “small front overlap crash test” in the small-car category – the worst performing of any vehicle category.

The test, instituted in 2012 and conducted by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, calls for a car to hit a barrier with the front driver’s side corner at 40 miles per hour. It simulates clipping another car head-on or hitting a tree or pole.

Only one of the 11 subcompacts and minis – the Chevy Spark – passed the demanding test. Although receiving a lukewarm rating of “Acceptable,” the Spark is thus the IIHS’s Top Safety Pick in its category. None of the 11 achieved the highest “Good” rating, four were deemed “Marginal” and six were “Poor” – the lowest of four possible results.

The test confirms what most people have suspected or experienced themselves: small cars generally don’t fare as well in crashes as their larger, heavier, more feature-laden brethren. Their smaller carbon and geographic footprints come at a risk in safety.

“Small, lightweight vehicles have an inherent safety disadvantage,” Joe Nolan, a senior vice president for the institute, the safety arm of the insurance industry, says in a statement.

However, industry spokespeople have pointed out that at least some of the models tested were not built to pass the more stringent benchmark of the small front overlap crash test. So there is plenty of room for improvement in the face of such test statistics.

According to IIHS spokesman Russ Rader, in an offset crash test like this one, the impact simply misses connecting with the main shock-absorbing materials. He believes there is no reason small cars can’t be re-engineered to perform well in the tests.

What does it mean to me?
The institute says about a quarter of the serious and fatal injuries in real-life front crashes are caused by “small overlap” impacts like this.

Frontal crash results indicate only how a car will perform in an accident with a similarly sized vehicle. In the much greater likelihood that a small car hits a larger vehicle, the occupants of the smaller vehicle usually suffer significantly worse injuries.

Manufacturers are already touting new designs that better protect against offset impacts. Honda, whose Fit fared the worst of all models in the IIHS test, expects its redesigned 2015 Fit – on sale this spring – to earn a “Good” score in this test.

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