U.S. carmakers are in full-tilt-boogie mode in their efforts to add smaller, less costly, more fuel-efficient cars to their stables. Ford’s all-new 2011 Fiesta sub-compact began arriving in dealerships in late June, while the redesigned Focus comes to market in early 2011. GM, meanwhile, launches the compact Chevy Cruze in September.

That focus on small cars means that auto engineers have been devoting even more time and energy to one of the big issues that has dogged small cars from a consumer acceptance standpoint: Safety. For decades we’ve been hearing that American buyers were hesitant to give up their big vehicles for fear that small cars weren’t safe enough. But recent advances in both technology and crash testing, not to mention the use of new, stronger structural materials, have significantly improved the crash-worthiness of small cars.

“With all of the improvements in technology, today’s small cars are as safe as, if not safer than, large cars from the 1970s,” said Wes Sherwood, Ford’s safety communications manager.

Fifty Years Of Progress

Albert Ware, director of GM’s safety center in Milford, Michigan, echoed these sentiments. He cited a crash test performed last September by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety that pitted a 1959 Chevy Bel Air against a 2009 Chevy Malibu. The vehicles were similar in weight -- the Bel Air weighed in at 3,629 lbs., while the Malibu tipped the scales at 3,452 lbs, according to the IIHS. "They were smashed right into each other, head-on, at 40 mph,” said Ware.

The driver of the Bel Air would have been killed in the crash. “But with the Malibu, the data showed that the driver would have maybe suffered a bruise on his chest. The door could still be opened and closed as easily as if it was still in the showroom,” Ware said.

The improved safety in modern cars isn’t all due to air bags. The bigger factor is that modern designs for the frame and the interior safety cage have improved, in large part because of an increase in the strength of the structural steel.

According to Sherwood more than 50 percent of the Fiesta’s body structure uses these high-strength or ultra-high-strength steels. The Fiesta’s A- and B-pillars are fashioned from ultra-high-strength, aluminized Boron steel, while the rocker panels are also crafted from high-strength, dual-phase steels known for their energy-absorption qualities.

Better Testing

One of the other ways carmakers are building safer cars is by improving their crash testing data. General Motors has recently spent $33 million on upgrades to its safety center in Milford, Michigan, and another $10 million to create a rollover-crash facility.

“One of the biggest enhancements to crash testing in recent years has been the improvement of our computerized analytical engineering,” said Ware. “Five years ago, we had a lot less capacity in that area, so we needed to do more ‘hardware’ crash testing. But now we can do many more computerized crash simulations, which allows us to be more tactical in our hardware crash tests.”

Today’s computerized “virtual” crash testing can provide engineers with data that wasn’t available to them even a few years ago. It also means that GM can do more crash testing, faster, in simulation, rather than actually smashing vehicles.

Ford also employs such sophisticated computerized methods, which, rather than employing crash-test dummies, can include virtual humans for more realistic assessment of injury. “These ‘virtual dummies’ are much more life-like, in the sense that engineers can simulate the effects of a crash on internal organs, the skeletal structure, and the brain,” said Sherwood.

In addition to the digitized virtual dummies, carmakers are also using higher-tech physical dummies, higher-tech in that they’re wireless. Typically, crash-test dummies have been wired to a data acquisition device for downloading data after the test, but new models use wi-fi. The wireless technology added another $35,000 to $40,000 to the cost of dummies that were already priced at $100,000 - $125,000 each.

“But when we built our rollover-crash facility, we wanted to minimize the use of wires that might get batted around in a rotating car, because we thought that could jeopardize the accuracy of the readings,” said Ware.

At GM’s safety center, when a new model is being developed, engineers typically crash as many as 70 vehicles as part of the research. Since the Cruze is already being sold in dozens of other countries outside the U.S., the car has already passed local safety regulations. This meant the Milford safety center “only” smashed up about 30 Cruzes as part of the testing for the U.S. model, according to Ware.

Making Electronics Safe

There’s no arguing that the prevalence of electronics in our cars, as well as the use of cell phones and other devices by drivers, contributes to accidents. Ford’s popular Sync hands-free system has been at the forefront of combating driver distraction, and a forthcoming enhancement will make it easier for drivers to control their devices via voice commands. Scheduled to launch late this year, AppLink will allow application developers to integrate with Sync, bringing hands-free operation to third-party apps on smart phones. Fiesta owners will be able to download the software into their cars.??

Another high-tech development from Ford is My Key, an electronic key fob that allows parents of teen drivers to select a feature that ensures that the vehicle cannot travel any faster than 80 mph. My Key also allows parents to enable a function that automatically reduces the volume of the stereo system by about 50 percent if the vehicle reaches a certain speed, in order to cut down on that particular form of teen distraction. A “no belts, no tunes” feature completely mutes the stereo system if the front occupants don’t buckle up their safety belts.

When first published, this story contained a factually incorrect quote regarding the curb weights of the cars used in the IIHS crash test. The article has since been corrected.

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