The American car market is being inundated with small cars. The new models abound, from the Nissan Juke to the Ford Fiesta, Fiat’s 500 to Mazda’s 2. There are even more coming: Saab has a 9-2 in the works, BMW plans a sub-1 Series car, and the next generation of Mercedes compacts currently available in Europe will be getting makeovers for American buyers.

The force behind the wave is obvious: The thumbscrews on fuel economy standards and emissions levels have been turned, and there’s a good chance they’ll be twisted again, as the feds are considering raising Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) to 62 miles per gallon by 2025. With trucks and luxury cars (and their larger profit margins) presenting a difficult target, carmakers are throwing everything they can at the rest of their lineups. Mid-sized cars offer possibilities, but there is only so much blood to be squeezed from these stones, what with shoppers annually requesting more room and more power. That makes small, budget-conscious cars the default play to address CAFE needs.

But the assault at the diminutive end persistently raises the issue of safety. Manufacturers crow that their small cars are safer than ever, boasting features like Honda's “ACE” safety system that channels energy throughout the car and Volvo's use of four different kinds of steel. Consumers, on the other hand, often ask, "What happens if you hit that car with an SUV or a semi?" In between them are bodies like the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) and European New Car Assessment Program (Euro NCAP), all of which issue safety ratings.

Beyond The Test Results

If you look at the test scores from these organizations, most of the time it seems the answer to the safety question is in the affirmative. The 2009 Honda Fit (the Honda Jazz in Europe) got five stars from the Euro NCAP test, a set of Good ratings (the highest rating) from the IIHS, and a five-star rating from the NHTSA.

In April 2009, however, the IIHS attempted to put the safety of small cars into context. It pitted three little cars against mid-sized cars from the same maker, conducting frontal offset tests at 40 miles per hour. The matchups were: Toyota Yaris vs. Camry, Smart Fortwo vs. Mercedes C-Class, and Honda Fit vs. Accord. The results made headlines, with the IIHS concluding, "The Honda Fit, Smart Fortwo, and Toyota Yaris are good performers in the Institute's frontal offset barrier test, but all three are poor performers in the frontal collisions with midsize cars. These results reflect the laws of the physical universe, specifically principles related to force and distance."

Quite simply, the budget offerings took their lumps and so did the dummies inside.

But does this mean that small cars aren't safe? Absolutely not. What it does mean is that small cars aren't as safe as larger cars. Let's be honest – this should be obvious to anyone. The laws of physics aren’t suspended for anyone, so anyone with even a passing understanding of force should realize that large, heavy things will have harmful effects when they collide at high speed with smaller, lighter things.

First, though, let's get a persistent nugget of absurdity out of the way. To those who ask, "What if you get hit by a semi in one of those small cars?" the truth is that if you get hit by a semi, even if you're in another semi, you are not going to like the results. A loaded 18-wheeler will put forty tons of massive hurt on absolutely anything. When Top Gear's Jeremy Clarkson ran a Renault semi into a brick wall, he destroyed the wall and, in his own words, "I emerged from my high-speed, head-on impact in what can only be described as screaming agony. I couldn't walk. I couldn't talk. I couldn't think."

According to the IIHS, small car fatality rates are greater than those for mid-sized and large cars. As of 2008, for every one million registered vehicles from one to three years old, there were 91 fatalities in small cars versus 56 in mid-sized and 63 in large cars. Sport utility vehicles were relatively safer still, with 28 fatalities per million in large SUVs at the low end and 44 fatalities for small SUVs at the top. Only pickups, due to rollover fatalities, were in the same league as small cars, with small pickups posting a 107-per-million fatality rate.

Same As It Ever Was

Beyond physics, the key to the data is that this state of affairs is no different than it's ever been.

"Small cars are much safer than they used to be," said Russ Rader at the IIHS, "but so are big cars. The disparity in death rates between the two is about what it always has been. People in the smallest cars are about twice as likely to die in crashes than people in the largest ones."

Nor does it help that drivers of compact cars are more likely to test these results more often. "Statistically," said Rader, "they're involved in more crashes than big cars."

When asked if that might have an effect on the fatality stats – perhaps the fatality rate for small cars was skewed by their numbers – Anne Fleming at the IIHS responded, "It doesn't matter how you chop up the numbers, by collision claims for vehicle damage for example, even with exposure factored in the result is the same. Small cars get in more accidents."

Manufacturers Respond

Although the IIHS fatality statistics are difficult to counter, there are other issues behind the numbers. The IIHS test was conducted with both cars going 40 mph, which is an exceptionally rare event.

"The IIHS test," said Brian Lyons, safety and quality communications manager at Toyota, "is equivalent to an 80 mph closing speed, a speed and energy higher than 99.1 percent of all real world crashes."

In fact, it's even rarer than 99.1 percent, says Lyons. "The real question for a 'comprehensive safety assessment',” he said, "is how well the vehicle’s safety systems perform in the limitless variety of real-world accidents. According to NHTSA data, less than 0.06 percent of all frontal crashes occur at the crash severity selected by the IIHS."

Honda feels similarly about the details not conveyed in the results. "Yes, there are a few things that are overlooked," wrote one of Honda's safety experts. "The Fit has the lowest fatality rate amongst small cars. Individually, the Fit and Civic fare well, whereas the class may not. Secondly, other things contribute to fatalities -- like demographics and household income. Small cars attract the youngest and oldest buyers, which, as a demographic, have the highest rate of fatalities. Also, small cars attract buyers with lower household incomes, which also tend to have higher fatalities."

Speaking of causation, the biggest overall cause of accidents is drivers under the influence of alcohol or some other impairing substance. Whenever you look at accident statistics, if you take incidents out in which alcohol was not a factor the numbers can drop by up to fifty percent.

Carmakers will also say that a car's ability to avoid accidents also plays a role in its relative safety, yet many of best safety features are simply priced out of the range of less expensive offerings. Volvo didn't have any of its cars in the IIHS crash test, but provided commentary on the things small cars miss out on and why.

"Consumer Reports 'Safety' ratings account for avoidance as one element of safety," said Volvo spokesman James Hope. "Systems like Blind Spot identifications, adaptive cruise control with auto braking, roll stability control, low speed accident avoidance, and other systems are geared to avoid an accident. In small cars these systems could add a good 30-plus percent to overall cost. Also, adding steel structures to absorb energy add costs that are difficult to pass along in that segment."

Should You Buy One?

In spite of the data – and physics – that reflects poorly on small cars when it comes to safety, even the IIHS doesn't want to give them a bad rap. It says the test was done just to keep everyone honest and informed.

"We would love for people to buy small cars," said Fleming at the IIHS. "We only do these tests when we run into a spate of information that claims small cars are just as safe as large cars. They're not. And that will ever be the case as long as the laws of physics hold."

Nevertheless, buyers are going to continue to buy small cars. And they should, but making sure to do the proper research on safety before purchase.

"Shoppers looking to buy a small car with safety as a priority," said Rader at the IIHS, "can find small models now that are much more crashworthy than small cars of the past. The Ford Fiesta – the only minicar that earns the Institute's Top Safety Pick status – and Subaru Impreza are Top Safety Picks in Institute crash tests for example. When buying a small car, it's especially important to buy the most crashworthy one that you can find."

Top Safety Picks 2010 from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety
LARGE CARS
Buick LaCrosse
Ford Taurus
Hyundai Genesis (built after 1/2010)
Lincoln MKS
Mercedes E class (built after 1/2010)
Volvo S80

SMALL CARS
Honda Civic (4-door (except Si) with optional ESC)
Kia Forte (built after 10/2009)
Kia Soul
Nissan Cube
Scion xB
Subaru Impreza (except WRX)
Toyota Corolla
VW Golf (4-door)

MIDSIZE CARS
Audi A3
Chevrolet Malibu (built after 11/2009)
Chrysler Sebring (4-door w/optional ESC)
Dodge Avenger (with optional ESC)
Hyundai Sonata (2011 models)
Mercedes C class
Subaru Legacy
Subaru Outback
Volkswagen Jetta (sedan)
Volkswagen Passat (sedan)
Volvo C30 (2010-11 models)
MIDSIZE SUVs
Dodge Journey
Subaru Tribeca
Volvo XC60
Volvo XC90

SMALL SUVs
Honda Element
Jeep Patriot (w/optional side torso airbags)
Subaru Forester
Volkswagen Tiguan