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    Cars like the 2011 Ford Fiesta are touted for their safety by manufacturers. But are the really safe? (Ford)

    by: Jonathon Ramsey | AOL Autos
     

    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

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    1 - 20 of 148 Comments
    highlanders0017 Nov 06, 2010 2:45 PM
    IVE BEEN DRIVING PROFESSIONALLY FOR 41 YEARS , SEMI AND RACE CAR! AN AUTO IS ONLY AS SAFE AS THE DRIVER , DRIVING IT! YA DRIVE LIKE A FRIGGIN IDDIOT YOUR GONNA PAY EVENTUALLY! I KNOW IM SAFE , MY JOB IS ACTUALLY WATCHING OUT FOR THE OTHER GUY! DOESNT MATTER WHAT YA DRIVE, IF YA ARE ON THE HWY AT A FAST SPEED ITS ONLY LUCK OR GOD THAT SAVES YA!
    Report This
    smoothski Nov 03, 2010 7:21 PM
    I think that there is another factor being overlooked. Just as the laws of physics favor the largest/heaviest vehicle in a head on crash, so too the same laws favor the smaller/lighter vehicle in maneuverability in avoiding such crashes. Lighter vehicals stop and turn faster. I am not sure how this capability can be factored in current crash statistics but it certainly exists.
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    peanut8481 Oct 27, 2010 2:49 PM
    The article is a lame plug for small cars. Agreed, 99.1% of all collisions are BELOW 80mph net velocity collisions. But this includes fender bumps, dings, parking lot collisions, etc. which are hardly fatal and should be categorized as inconveniences of vanity. A statistical misdirection to mitigate the damning evidence of IIHS and the laws of physics. I WANT a vehicle that survives a 40mph+ to 40mph+ collision because THAT collision is life threatening and THAT is the one I'm concerned about. That being said, you are twice as likely to die in a small car in a life threatening accident than you are if you are in a small SUV and 4 times more likely to die in a small car than if you were in a large SUV. Don't buy a car preparing for the dings and fender benders -- buy the heaviest and most bulletproof vehicle you can afford to give you and your family the best chance of survival.
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    katcolby6 Oct 26, 2010 7:15 PM
    I don't care what you drive, you're only as safe as the driver's around you are good. I drove a Semi for years and pretty much came to the conclusion that anyone driving a four wheeler didn't know how to drive. Over the years I have had to amend that. There are some very good drivers out there, but a lot more idiots that take chances. You read about them every day. He didn't beat the train across the tracks after all: 18 inches clearance in front of the semi you just passed wasn't quite enough: etc. ************* to reason, if they do produce the cars that will get 62 MPG, the price of fuel is going to sky rocket. I repeat, It doesn't matter what you drive. If you tangle with something bigger, you lose.
    Report This
    writingit Oct 26, 2010 6:46 PM
    Small cars are only safe when they are surrounded by other small cars. However, in a state such as Texas, where large trucks and SUVs are our modern day "horses", a small car gets the worst end of an accident, and it doesn't matter the manufacturer.
    Report This
    wavforce Oct 26, 2010 4:56 PM
    ALL SMALL CARS ARE DANGEROUS,A TRUCK CAN RUN ON AND SMASHES THEN LIKE A TOMATO!
    Report This
    vlady1000 Oct 25, 2010 11:58 PM
    Lighter means less momentum going down the road. 1/2 the weight means 1/2 the force to stop it (hitting another in an accident). Lighter handles better, might be able to drive around the accident, instead of going thru it. I have avoided a few accidents driving a small, light sports car in my 35 years. SUV have a high center of gravity, plus many drivers figure 4WD are made to go FAST in the snow and they end up on their top when they slide and hit the ditch. If everyone felt they need bigger to be safer, then where does it stop?... guess I would need a tank
    Report This
    princesskaren68x Oct 25, 2010 9:17 PM
    Dusty--- I have been driving all kinds of vehicles for over 26 yrs --(probabbly longer than you have been alive & my driving record is impeccable)- so say what you want ...Used german junkers are total jokes- I have had a New Audi & a New Mercedes....Both turned out to be crap ....If youre doing so well financially and so classy then why a 4 yr old car & not a new one---ohhh, thats right --youve charged up so much , that you cannot afford pmts on a new VW--not that German cars are good anyway--the ones i have had & my friends have had were NEW & were crap !!!!!!...and, they had a new Vw , i had a new audi & new Mbenz......I used to drive those little 6 inches off the ground sporty teeny-bopper cars , and the VW's are for wanna-be's , who want to try to convince people that they have something --the only thing you have is used german shyt --and when it breaks --YOU'R GOING TO PAY !!!!!!!!....Start crying now, since you LOVE to cry so much !!!!....All of your charge cards are almost maxed out now too huh ??? wow , so if your USED -azz "i ******* were new & maybe i can fool others" piece of junk breaks, youre screwed !!!!!!!!!!!...That WIIL BE FUNNY...Ohhh, wait , thats right , i totally forgot---"MOMMY" will come to the rescue ONCE AGAIN, as ALWAYS....The day you stop charging, start paying cash , & STOP getting mommy to pay your bills/repairs, R.E. taxes, will be the day you finally mature & grow up .....I am guessing NEVER !!!!!....Go play online --go to forver 21, or H&M, or one of those trendy , cheezy online stores & charge things that you cannot afford, that "look expensive"........WE ARE SOOOOOO onto your phony-azz behavior, dressing , fugly bob style , and the whole phony facade that you ATTEMPT to project to others ---It really is quite pathetic ......You will NEVER grow up & see whats REALLY IMPORTANT......Whatsa matta ??? Going to cry now , because we figured you out & you dont know why you cant get prego?? or maybe dont know of you should --lmaooo.....Wow, what big things for a 26 yr old with the brain of a 17 yr old to ponder......Geeee,, which card should i use ???? which fake outfit that i charged & havent paid for yet shall i wear today ??? rubber or no rubber ??? pill or no pill ???.... streaks in fugly bob, or let it grow out,or bag over head ?? I vote for BAG OVER HEAD--GIVE IT UP MISS IMMATURE PHONY TWIT ....WE ARE SOOOO ONTO YOUR CRAP---GO BLOW YOUR CRIMINAL SPOUSES TEENY WEENY--OHHH, THATS RIGHT YOU DONT DO THAT --YOURE A PRUDE.....HE WILL GET IT ELSEWHERE... AS UGLY AS HE IS , HE WILL GET A GOOD B-JOB ELSEWHERE ....AND MOST LIKELY SOME ELEVATOR SHOES , SINCE HES 5 foot 3 inches.....His "pickle" is 3 inches at most ....PRUDE !!!! ...He WILL cheat --just gove it a few more yrs or less....GUARANTEED.....I please my man in EVERY way ....He is BIGG , and soooo good !!!!....Too bad you will NEVER know what good sex is ....Your spouse does, cuz hes banging that cute blonde 20 yr old at work --cant blame the dwarf ....... GO AWAY --- YOU ARE PATHETIC , PHONY, TOO LAZY 4 COLLEGE, ARE A LAUGH & BORE US !!!!
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    princesskaren68x Oct 25, 2010 8:41 PM
    dusty-- id rather ROLL in the SUV, and be alove then to get crushed in your little chep azz plastic cracker jack box of a pueny car and die ....Gee, i wonder what else is pueny .....Besides your teeny weeny, and the stature of a 12 yr old , im guessing your BRAIN is TINY & IQ is in the way below average level.. nice try dusty ............TO DCCSOUTH--I AGREE WITH YOU 100% ......This dusty person is some pueny lil punk with a criminal record the size of a parking lot, and his mommy has to keep co sogning on things for him to get ANYTHING...Everything i have is OURS -paid IN CASH --no cards ..CASHHHHH...DCC--If you take Dusty the punk's cards away--hed have NOTHINGGGGGG....AND WITHOUT THE MOMMY CO-SIGNER , dusty---youd still be living out in the GHETTO --where you came from ,.....And his TRASH wife claims she has class--ohh suree--***** who shack up with a criminal for 2 yrs then marry him , and then throw juiveinille crying fits to get her way is SO FAR from anything to do with class .....try TRASH honey !!!! nice try !!!!!!!!!...Call mommy & cry again ....lmaooo.....what a wuss !!!!!!!!!! too funny !!!!!!!!
    Report This
    cwestbrookjr Oct 24, 2010 7:54 PM
    the government just needs to outlaw SUV's and larger vehicles so smaller more earth friendly cars and the people in them will be safer
    Report This
    dccdsouth Oct 24, 2010 7:34 PM
    Sorry but I'd rather "roll" in my SUV than have your collapsable cracker jack box crumple in on me like a tissue and they have to DISASSEMBLE the ENTIRE car to get me out!!
    Report This
    bobparks77 Oct 24, 2010 6:29 PM
    Watch out for female Asian drivers. Clueless, generally driving 15 MPH under the speed limit, heads swiveling in all directions. This is a warning -- WATCH OUT !!
    Report This
    dusty754 Oct 24, 2010 5:41 PM
    princesskaren68x Oct 23, 2010 11:48 PM Sport utility vehicles were relatively safer still, with 28 fatalities per million in large SUVs . I REST MY CASE --SO STOP SAYING THE SMALLER NEWER CARS HAVE NEWER SAFETY STANDARDS --YOURE STILL GOING TO DIE IN THAT NEWER HONDA, HYUNDAI, VW, TOYOTA, ETC.... I WILL BE HAPPY TO HANG ONTO MY LARGE SUV --IT HAS ALREADY SAVED OUR LIVES LAST DEC, WHEN SOME PICKUP TRUCK RAN A RED LIGHT & SLAMMED THE SIDE OF OUR TRUCK .......HE GOT SUED BY US, WE HAVE THE DENT ON OUR TRUCK STILL TO PROVE , THAT JUST BECAUSE THE THIS LARGE FORD SUV IS NOT NEW --IT IS HEAVY ---AND THAT MEANS ALOT IN AN ACCIDENT --PERIOD !!!!!!!!.... I DONT CARE WHAT NEW SAFETY STANDARDS THE LITTLE PUENY, WIMPY CARS HAVE (THE ONES THE WIMPS & TWITS DRIVE TO ATTEMPT TO BE COOL, THEY WILL BE DEAD WHEN SOMEONE WITH A TRUCK HITS EM .......WE HAD A TRUCK HIT US ALMOST A YEAR AGO AND WE WERE ALL OK .......IT WAS VERY IMPRESSIVE, BECAUSE THIS TRUCK IS A 2003, AND HIGHER MILES, BUT AS I SAID IT IS PAID OFF !!!!! AND RUNS GREAT & IT IS SAFE !!!!!!!!!!!!!! END OF STORY ---SO YOU PLASTIC, PUENY LIL CAR DRIVERS ---IN YOUR FACE !!!!!!!! ENJOY YOUR DOOMSDAY WHEN THAT DRUNK RUNS THAT STOP SIGN --YOU CAN BE THE BEST DRIVER EVER, BUT THERES ALWAYS SOMEONE WHO RUNS THAT STOP SIGN , TRAFFIC LIGHT, OR JUST ISNT PAYING ATTENTION---YOURE TOAST IN THOSE LIL PLASTIC CRAPPERS !!!!!...ILL TAKE MY 6500 LB. LARGE, SAFE SUV , THAT WE USE FOR THE KIDS, PETS, HAULING THINGS, AND JUST NICE TO HAVE THE ADVANTAGE OF LOOKING DOWN ON TRAFFIC -- IT GIVE THE SUV DRIVERS THAT EDGE AND ADVANTAGE IN A SAFETY WAY -- AND FEELS GOOD TO BE UP HIGH .... ... PEOPLE IN LIL CARS-- MAYBE A TRUCK WILL RUN YOUR AZZ OVER IF YOURE NOT CAREFUL ....LMAOOOOO !!!!!! YOU FOOLS IN LIKL CARS THAT THINK ITS SAFE .....YOU FEEL THE FOOL NOW !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!Report This Seems like this person got on her menstralcycle and is riding everyone's ass. Sorry but these SUVs tend to roll over due to their having a higher center of gravity. That is why they had such a problem with the tires a short time ago. The tire blew out and the vehicles rolled. Didn't happen to those with a lower center of gravity.
    Report This
    dusty754 Oct 24, 2010 5:37 PM
    As much as a certain person keeps stating that the SUV is safer, they tend to roll over much more than a vehicle with a lower center of gravity.
    Report This
    howardfrankfort Oct 24, 2010 5:34 PM
    Any good idea can be taken too far, for me the fit is way too far. But that is MY choice, everyone has the right to make their own choices.
    Report This
    tisherselftheelf Oct 24, 2010 5:15 PM
    It's not the semi trucks that worry me, it's the female drivers who drive a hummer or other SUV and think they're invincible and run stop signs or red lights. Yes, I'm singling out female drivers. I am a female driver who has never had an accident or a ticket of any kind! These spoiled little twits in their SUV's are a menace!
    Report This
    ltadeyeske Oct 24, 2010 5:01 PM
    No car is safe at the hands of a jackass.
    Report This
    dustbusterz Oct 24, 2010 4:28 PM
    why have they left out ratings on the Mini Cooper? this is a legit car in the us. growing more popular all the time,and should have been included in these tests so we can compare with others.
    Report This
    liguyusa Oct 24, 2010 3:15 PM
    If everyone would drive responsibly, follow the rules, not talk on their phones, etc. then car size wouldn't be such an issue. We also need better enforcement of the rules and stiffer penalties for violations.
    Report This
    beemerboxer Oct 24, 2010 3:12 PM
    I own a pair of Fords, one a T-Bird V8 and the other an Edge. Both excellent cars, well made, ultra reliable and not too heavy on the gas while Interstate driving. I recently rented a Hyundai Elantra whilst on vacation and was impressed with the quality of the interior, instrumentation and comfort level. It was smooth, quiet and exceptional for a tiny tin box car. When I filled the tank to avoid being scalped by the rental company, a found it returned 38 mpg average! Admittedly my vacation spot had few speed limits over 40 mpg but the little Hyundai still acted like a gas miser. It did not lack acceleration and held the road like a limpet. Were I not inclined to drive an American car, this one would certainly fill the bill for a good second vehicle.
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