Six small cars earn good or acceptable safety ratings

Institute adds small overlap front test to vehicle safety evaluations.

That's what happened when the Volkswagen Beetle was put to the test. During impact, the steering column moved nearly 5 inches to the right as the dummy's upper body moved forward and to the left. The rotation meant that the dummy's head barely contacted the front airbag. At the same time, the safety belt spooled out too much, allowing the dummy to move forward 13 inches and hit its head on the dashboard. The side airbag didn't deploy. Instead of a curtain airbag, the Beetle has a seat-mounted combination head-torso side airbag that isn't designed to protect the head in this type of crash. All of these issues add up to a poor restraints and kinematics score for the Beetle. The Volkswagen earns a marginal rating overall, helped by an acceptable rating for structure and good dummy injury measures.

A similar problem with safety belts and airbags was seen with the Kia Forte, the worst performer for both restraints and structure of all of the small cars evaluated. Too much belt slack and a side curtain airbag that deployed but didn't provide enough forward coverage allowed the dummy's head to hit the windshield pillar and instrument panel.

In contrast, both the 2-door and 4-door versions of the Civic earn good ratings for restraints and kinematics and structure. Dummy movement during the tests was well-controlled, and both cars had only minimal intrusion into the occupant compartment, so survival space for the dummy was well-maintained.

Timing the side curtain airbag to deploy to provide optimal head protection in the crash also is key. In the Chevrolet Sonic test, the airbag deployed after the dummy had already moved toward the open driver window, leaving its head on the wrong side of the curtain airbag. The Sonic earns a marginal rating for restraints and kinematics and acceptable for structure.

Good side curtain airbag coverage in the Elantra helped the car earn an acceptable rating, even though the safety belt allowed the dummy to move forward 11 inches. Among vehicles in which the side curtain airbags deployed, only those in the Elantra, Civics and Scion tC offered sufficient forward coverage.

"Toyota changed the airbag algorithm in the 2014 model tC so the curtain airbag would deploy in a small overlap crash. That helped boost the Scion's rating. Without the change, the tC would have had a marginal rating for restraints and kinematics," Zuby says.

The Institute didn't test the Toyota Corolla because the automaker plans to release a redesigned 2014 model in August.

The Dart was tested twice because of an on-board camera malfunction in the first test. Engineers use footage from cameras to assess how dummies move during crash tests. In the Dart retest, the driver door opened when the hinges tore away from the door frame. In the initial test, the hinges were severely damaged and the lower one tore away, but the door stayed shut. In both tests, the Dart's safety belts and front and side curtain airbags effectively protected the dummy's head and upper body, and sensors in the dummy showed little risk of injury to a person in a similar real-world crash. The Institute averaged results of both tests and downgraded the Dart's restraints and kinematics rating to marginal because doors shouldn't open in a crash. Without the issue, the Dart would have earned a good rating for restraints and kinematics. It earns an acceptable rating for structure.

Having six small cars qualify for the Institute's highest safety award broadens the choices for consumers looking to buy a small car. The latest results highlight how some automakers are designing models to perform well in the demanding small overlap test. At the same time, other automakers have more work to do.

"Manufacturers need to focus on the whole package," Zuby says. "That means a strong occupant compartment that resists the kinds of intrusion we see in a frontal crash like this, safety belts that prevent a driver from pitching too far forward and side curtain airbags to cushion a head at risk of hitting the dashboard or window frame."

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