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Smallest Cars in US Fare Poorly in Crash Tests

Summary of the small car crash testing. Click to enlarge.

For the first time, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) has tested the smallest vehicles sold in the US market, which gain popularity as fuel prices rise.

Crash test results indicate which vehicles in each weight category afford the best protection in real-world crashes, and this round of tests reveals big differences among the smallest cars, according to IIHS.  The Nissan Versa earns good ratings in all three tests—front, side, and rear crashes. Two other cars earn good ratings in front and side but not rear tests.

Crash deaths in lighter-weight vehicles are higher. Click to enlarge.

Data from real crashes indicates that driver death rates in the smallest cars are higher than in any other vehicle category, and more than double the death rates in midsize and large cars. Death rates in single-vehicle crashes also are higher in smaller vehicles than in bigger ones.

People traveling in small, light cars are at a disadvantage, especially when they collide with bigger, heavier vehicles.

—Adrian Lund, IIHS President

The smallest cars in the US weigh about 2,500 pounds or less; midsize cars weigh about 800 pounds more than a minicar; and a midsize SUV weighs 4,000 pounds or more, exceeding the weight of a minicar by at least 60 percent. In every vehicle category (car, SUV, or pickup truck), the risk of crash death is higher in the smaller, lighter models.

Despite the safety trade-off, more consumers are buying minicars. This is why we tested them. We want consumers to use the ratings to choose the most crashworthy designs among the smallest cars.

—Adrian Lund

The Nissan Versa—the largest of the lot tested in this round—is the only car to earn the highest rating of good in all three tests. In the frontal test, its structure held up well, minimizing intrusion into the space around the driver dummy. Most injury measures were low. In the side test, the standard curtain-style airbags prevented contact between the striking barrier and the heads of the crash test dummies (Nissan is modifying the side airbags in cars built after November 2006 to improve protection in side impacts).

The Institute’s side test is especially challenging for small cars because the barrier that strikes the test vehicle represents the front end of a pickup truck or SUV. Side airbags designed for head protection are crucial because the barrier crashes into the side of the car right at the head level of the two dummies that are positioned in the driver seat and in the rear seat behind the driver.

The Honda Fit with standard side airbags and the Toyota Yaris equipped with optional side airbags also earn good ratings in front and side tests. However, rear protection isn’t rated good. The Yaris is rated marginal for occupant protection in rear impacts, and the Fit’s rear rating is poor.

The Institute conducted two frontal tests of the Fit. In the first test the frontal airbag deployed too early, allowing high forces on the driver dummy’s head. Honda is modifying the airbags in cars built after November 2006 and says it will recall cars built earlier. In the second test of a Fit with the design change, the frontal airbag deployed properly, and injury measures recorded on the dummy’s head were low. The published rating is for vehicles with the design change.

The Hyundai Accent, Scion xB, and the Toyota Yaris without its optional side airbags earn poor ratings in the side test. The Chevrolet Aveo is marginal. The Accent and Aveo didn’t perform well even though they have standard side airbags. The Aveo’s front seat-mounted side airbags did a good job of protecting the driver dummy’s head, but this car’s structural performance was marginal. Intrusion into the occupant compartment led to high forces on the driver dummy’s pelvis. There’s no side airbag protection for rear-seat passengers, and the barrier struck the dummy’s head.

The Accent’s structural performance in the side test also was marginal. Curtain-style airbags in front and rear seats provided good head protection, but measures recorded elsewhere on the driver dummy indicate a motorist in a similar real-world crash would be likely to sustain internal organ injuries, broken ribs, and a fractured pelvis.

Overall the Accent is the lowest rated car in this group. The rank order takes into account all three ratings (front, side, and rear).

Another poor performer in the side test is the Scion xB. Side airbags aren’t available, and the xB’s side structure didn’t do a good job of resisting intrusion during the impact. The barrier intruded into the car and struck the driver dummy’s head. Measures indicate the likelihood of brain injuries, serious neck injuries, and a fractured pelvis in a real-world crash of similar severity.

The seat/head restraints in many cars still don’t provide adequate protection for most people in rear-end crashes, according to IIHS. Every model except the Versa earns a low rating of marginal or poor.

You don’t have to buy the smallest, lightest car to get one that’s easy on fuel consumption. Models including the Honda Civic, not even the hybrid version, and Toyota Corolla are bigger than the minicars we tested and weigh more, so we would expect better occupant protection in serious crashes. At the same time, these and other small car models get nearly as good fuel economy as minicars.

—Adrian Lund

The Institute’s frontal crashworthiness evaluations are based on results of 40 mph frontal offset crash tests. Each vehicle’s overall evaluation is based on measurements of intrusion into the occupant compartment, injury measures recorded on a Hybrid III dummy in the driver seat, and analysis of slow-motion film to assess how well the restraint system controlled dummy movement during the test.

Side evaluations are based on performance in a crash test in which the side of a vehicle is struck by a barrier moving at 31 mph. The barrier represents the front end of a pickup or SUV. Ratings reflect injury measures recorded on two instrumented SID-IIs dummies, assessment of head protection countermeasures, and the vehicle's structural performance during the impact.

Injury measures obtained from the two dummies, one in the driver seat and the other in the back seat behind the driver, are used to determine the likelihood that a driver and/or passenger in a real-world crash would have sustained serious injury to various parts of the body. The movements and contacts of the dummies’ heads during the crash also are evaluated. Structural performance is based on measurements indicating the amount of B-pillar intrusion into the occupant compartment.

Rear crash protection is rated according to a two-step procedure. Starting points for the ratings are measurements of head restraint geometry—the height of a restraint and its horizontal distance behind the back of the head of an average-size man. Seats with good or acceptable restraint geometry are tested dynamically using a dummy that measures forces on the neck. This test simulates a collision in which a stationary vehicle is struck in the rear at 20 mph.



Wasn't this just common sense? I mean 4000 pounds vs. 2500, who's going to win? However this problem would be solved if people didn't feel the urge to buy huge trucks and suv's.

Paul Dietz

Some years ago the NHTSA did a study that concluded that reducing the weight of cars would, on average, cost lives, but reducing the weight of light trucks would save lives, because fewer people would be killed in the cars that collided with the trucks.


The solution is to mount _light_ autocannons on light vehicles and shoot SUVs at sight, obviously, dont let them approach.


Damn kert, you are smart, somebody should lobby congress for that one.

Harvey D.

Where do we stop with the size and weight game?

Should we all drive 4+ tons 'light' trucks and very large SUVs?

Wouldn't it be wiser to reduce the size and weight of all those gas guzzlers to less than 3000 lbs?

Since you can't ban those monsters off the roads, could we at least tax them for the damage they do to others, roads, properties, environment etc. A yearly registration fee (on vehicle above 3000 lbs) of 50 cents to $1/lb + an extra purchase tax of $2 to $3/lb may convince a few/many to drive lighter vehicles.


Why do we allow large SUVs in the first place? I can see pickups used for work, but most of the pickups are not used for work. I can not think of a whole lot of work related needs for large SUVs. The UCS designed an Explorer SUV that was lighter, more streamlined, stronger, more fuel efficient and less prone to rollover, that only cost about 10% more. People buy large SUVs because they think that they are safer, but then they roll over and the weak roofs cave in. It is just that they are "safer" than the small car that they just crushed. Bumper height is another reason SUVs mash small cars. If they can build a small race car to withstand a crash, I think they can design a small car to withstand a crash as well. There just is not enough profit to be made...yet.


I think the title of the article is misleading. Even the smallest car is safer than a pickup, and if the car weighs at least 2900 lbs, it is safer than any other vehicle on the road except for a heavier car. So which cars weighing at least 2900 get the highest mileage? How about a Honda Civic, Toyota Prius or Volkswagen Jetta? And if you want something bigger, how about a Toyota Camry Hybrid. Anything bigger is a waste of gas.


People also buy SUV's because they think it increases their traction on the road, and that would be why for every 5 vehicles you see in the ditch, 4 of them are trucks and SUV's.


I have seen more SUV's in the ditch on icy days than any other type of vehicle. As I have observed to the wife, You can get them going when you can't get a two-wheeler but they don't stop any quicker.

Light cars are a lot more agile than the chunks of iron. They often times avoid situations that SUV's can't.


Hopefully the latest DARPA challenge pans out well and the technology filters down to consumer autos as fast as possible. A world with cars able to "assist" in avoidance of accidents would be much better regardless of the crash ratings of the cars themselves.

I am not surprised by the low ratings for the Kia/Hyundai Rio/Accent and Chevy Aveo. Nice to see that some side airbags make a large difference in survivability.


I doubt that size of the car has anything to do with occupant safety when it is t-boned by SUV or pick-up with high-hanging bumper. And according to what I see on the streets, there is more and more SUV, their bumpers are still too high, and more and more drivers are running red light. You can not dodge this.

Side impact air bags are the must to any car, small or big. Lousy way to save money by not opting for side impact air bag when buying a new vehicle.


Other versions of this article have also noted that small cars have higher injury and death rates in single-vehicle accidents (e.g. run off road into a tree). I think there needs to be more thought here. Simply reducing the number of SUVs and pickups (eliminating them is only in the fairy tale world, I think) would not eliminate possibility of crashing with the ones still on the road (especially if you provide an "exception" for people using their trucks for "work"), nor crashes with commercial trucks that are larger and heavier by far, and will never be eliminated (again, except in the fairy tale world).

Many small vehicles are also cheap and from 2nd-rate companies, which is probably part of the problem. In contrast, BMW, for example, makes a number of small cars but they are much safer than equally small cars from less sophisticated designers. Better engineering could fix part of the problem. I think bumper height, both on small cars and big trucks, needs to be equalized and improved. This would be a very simple item to legislate and enforce, and could have major safety benefits. I also think that a light car shouldn't automatically be small in its length and width, as apart from weight the larger cars also benefit from greater crush zone to reduce peak impact forces. With better engineering or materials, cars may be able to have larger crush zones with little to no impact on MPG.

tom deplume

Isn't the most common accident a single vehicle hitting a stationary object.
Where are the numbers? How many collisions are there between SUVs and very small cars? Small cars are also a small percentage of all private vehicles and a small number of collisions can seriously skew the stats.


It seems you are just as likely to be in a fatality per 100 million vehicle miles driven in a light truck (van, SUV, pickup all under 10,000lbs) as you are in a passenger vehicle. In a passenger vehicle, per 100 million vehicle miles, you are slightly more likely to be injured but slightly less likely to be involved in an accident compared to light trucks based on statistical data from the bureau of transportation statistics.



BMW makes the Mini Cooper, which gave a decidedly middling performance in these tests. Nissan -- hardly a super-duper luxury marque -- took the prize. Go figure.

Crash compatibility is a major issue, as is single-vehicle survivability. On a statistical basis, the safest thing to drive is an barge-like large sedan with the latest in side-impact everything. Funny thing is, if we got the pickup/SUV crowd to start buying those, fuel consumption would still go down. And the rest of us would be safer, due to equalized bumper heights.

As I've touted once before, the Ford Five Hundred is a remarkably undersung vehicle. It is hardly a 50 MPG Prius-beater, but it has American proportions and appeal, while being much more eco-friendly than the latest Explorer.


Why do we allow large SUVs in the first place?


Funny they didn't bother testing the Smart even though it's available and about to be offered by the manufacturer.

Michael G. Richard

That's when there's a crash, but what I'm curious about is: Do you have less chances of being in a crash in the first place if you are driving a smaller, nimbler car that has shorter braking distances, doesn't block the view of those behind, blind those in front with high headlights, etc..?



Read my comment and then go to and see for yourself. You are less likely to be involved in an accident in a passenger vehicle than a light truck and at the same time you are more likely to be injured in a passenger vehicle than a light truck. For stats on specific vehicle sizes you would have to scour through the NHTSA or IIHS websites as they has some documentation related to your query.

Michael G. Richard

Thanks, Patrick.


Zack, Tom Deplume,
Single vehicle accidents are the main cause of auto accidents, and traction control is a way to mitigate it.
_With the video game/arcade generation at or already driving age, a way to mitigate 4x4/AWD overconfidence would be a cheap, intuitive, high quality, high volume, driving sim. All drivers would have a choice of using it/passing as a part to get their driver's permits/licenses. It would show you and family members (your and their driver license photos) in your vehicle model(s). Add adverse road conditions, realistic damage/injury modeling, insurance claims, and funeral/hospital scene. That would get the point across to drive more conservatively. It may also retail through the software developers. Other features might include the importance of vehicle maintenance, and how driving habits/styles affect vehicle MPG, longevity, etc.

Michael G. Richard,
Yes, as a group, small cars tend to stop at a shorter distance than larger vehicles. This assumes good vehicle condition, and road conditions. However, slippery conditions may negate this, esp if there is sudden onset of bad conditions, ie black ice. Additionally, ideal stopping distance from 60mph/100kph still takes a bit over 100ft/30m. With normal conditions, it can be >10% longer. If you go lose control, the roadside ditch, tree, or solid object can be upon you faster than you can stop. Crashing into something heavy and solid is harsh enough, slamming into a tree/column sideways is even more brutal on occupants. This is why traction controls, in some cases, will help.


Thanks for the sensationalism of the news media entities. According to other reports from the iihs:

Quite a few of these "mini" cars are blowing the doors off of much larger vehicles in the same tests. The scion xb and Yaris without side airbags seem to do better than the corolla without side airbags. The Yaris does much better than the Corolla when both have airbags.

Plenty of mini-vans and SUVs with worse ratings than the top four mini cars and there are plenty of small cars with ratings equivalent to the bottom of the barrel from this list.


The bottom line seems to be that you can have safe and effecient cars, but there is room for improvement in both. That is why these tests are done. To show the public and car makers where they need to improve. Auto safety ratings are becoming as important as the EPA sticker, which is a good thing. There is no reason the consumer can not have both fuel economy and safety if the consumer demands it and the car makers meet that demand.


Yes, I do agree SJC. I just find it silly that they quickly put headlines and stories(check cnn) that declare the move to fuel efficient vehicles will lead to a rash of fatalities and injuries.

Allen, There are few sports cars capable of stopping from 60mph in 100ft let alone passenger vehicles. Most of the time the professional vehicle testers shut off the ABS systems to achieve the shortest stopping distances on a dry track...not something recommended for the average driver to cut a few feet off of their stopping distances.


Ban trans fat,these fat people are dangerous.Why do we allow Mcdonalds to exist?Krispy Kreme should be absorbed by the state and its assets distributed to the poor.Power to the people!!

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