Six small cars earn good or acceptable safety ratings

Institute adds small overlap front test to vehicle safety evaluations.

The latest small overlap front crash test results from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) reveal a range of performance among many of the best-selling small cars in the U.S. market. Of the 12 models evaluated, half earn a good or acceptable rating and qualify for the IIHS Top Safety Pick+ award.

The 2-door and 4-door models of the Honda Civic are the only small cars to earn the top rating of good in the test. IIHS evaluated the Civics earlier this year and released the results in March. The Dodge Dart, Ford Focus, Hyundai Elantra and 2014 model Scion tC earn acceptable ratings.

The Civics, Dart, Elantra, Focus and tC earn the Top Safety Pick+ accolade. The Institute introduced the award in 2012 to recognize models with superior crash protection. So far, 25 models earn the top honor. The "plus" indicates good or acceptable performance in the small overlap test. Winners must earn good ratings for occupant protection in 4 of 5 evaluations and no less than acceptable in the fifth test. IIHS rates vehicles good, acceptable, marginal or poor based on performance in a moderate overlap front crash, small overlap front crash, side impact and rollover test, plus evaluations of seat/head restraints for protection against neck injuries in rear impacts.

The Institute added the small overlap front test to its lineup of vehicle evaluations last year. It replicates what happens when the front corner of a vehicle strikes another vehicle or an object like a tree or a utility pole. In the test, 25 percent of a vehicle's front end on the driver side strikes a 5-foot-tall rigid barrier at 40 mph. A 50th percentile male Hybrid III dummy is belted in the driver seat.

Small cars are the fourth group of vehicles to be tested. All but the tC and Kia Forte are 2013 models. IIHS also has evaluated midsize luxury cars, midsize cars and small SUVs. Results for minicars will be released later this year.

As a group, small cars fared worse than their midsize moderately priced counterparts in the same test but better overall than small SUVs.

"The small cars with marginal or poor ratings had some of the same structural and restraint system issues as other models we've tested," says David Zuby, the Institute's chief research officer. "In the worst cases safety cages collapsed, driver airbags moved sideways with unstable steering columns and the dummy's head hit the instrument panel. Side curtain airbags didn't deploy or didn't provide enough forward coverage to make a difference. All of this adds up to marginal or poor protection in a small overlap crash."

Most new vehicles are designed to do well in the federal government's full-width front crash test and in the Institute's moderate overlap front test, but that is no guarantee of good performance in a small overlap crash. In a 2009 IIHS study of vehicles with good ratings for crash protection, small overlap crashes accounted for nearly a quarter of the frontal crashes involving serious or fatal injury to front seat occupants. In many vehicles the impact at a 25 percent overlap misses the primary structures designed to manage crash energy. That increases the risk of severe damage to or collapse of the occupant compartment structure. Also, vehicles tend to rotate and slide sideways during this type of collision, and that can move the driver's head outboard, away from the protection of the front airbag. If the dummy misses the airbag or slides off of it, the head and chest are unprotected.

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