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Small car safety is a big growth industry

Small cars are safer than ever. Not perfectly safe, nor ideally safe, mind you. If you want the most protection possible, drive the biggest ride one on the road. The laws of physics continue to rule, now as ever.

And that's why in a recent report from the Arlington, Va.-based Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), Anne McCartt notes that when it comes to on-the-road protection, SUVs (sport-utility vehicles) outperform cars as a general rule.

"It's not just weight that gives SUVs an advantage," she says. "It's also their height and other factors. When cars and SUVs of similar weight are compared, the SUVs have lower death rates."

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Okay, okay, but let's not go overboard. Fuel-sipping econo-boxes like the Honda Civic and the Ford Focus don't have the size, and heft and height of, say, a Volkswagen Touareg or a Buick Enclave. Nonetheless, the Institute says six of 13 small cars recently tested won its "Top Safety Pick" award - and none earned a "poor" rating in any of four tests. None. Not one. Impressive.

The latest Top Safety Picks: the 2012 Ford Focus and Honda Civic, and the 2011 Hyundai Elantra, Lexus CT 200h hybrid, Nissan Juke and Toyota Prius. Add to that list two other small electric vehicles, both of which will soon go on sale in Canada - the Chevrolet Volt and Nissan Leaf.

On top of all that, in previous IIHS testing Top Pick awards went to: the Chevrolet Cruze, Kia Forte sedan, Kia Soul, Mazda3 (built after December 2010), Mini Cooper Countryman, Mitsubishi Lancer sedan (except 4-wheel drive), Nissan Cube, Scion tC, Scion xB, Subaru Impreza (except WRX), Toyota Corolla, Volkswagen Golf and Golf GTI and Ford Fiesta (built after July 2010).

Like the mainstream six gas-powered runabouts just crash tested, the Volt, an electric car with an on-board gasoline generator, and the Leaf, a fully electric car, earned top ratings of "good" for front, side, rear and rollover protection in the crash tests administered by the Institute. That makes them all Top Picks, along with the fact that each have electronic stability control as standard equipment or available as an option.

The Institute says that a few years ago small cars struggled to earn top ratings. No more. Indeed, most small cars now are equipped with air bags and electronic stability control as standard equipment, and are designed to help protect people better in front, side, rollover and rear-impact crashes.

Take the 2011 Hyundai Elantra as an example of what auto makers are doing to make small cars safer. Now a Top Safety Pick, it once earned some of the lowest crash test scores of any passenger vehicles. The Institute also noted that newer small cars achieved substantially better gas mileage than their old models managed.

"The list of cars with the best fuel economy now includes those with the highest crash test ratings in their class, too," David Zuby, the institute's chief research officer, told Automotive News. "At a time of high gasoline prices, consumers have never had a bigger selection of small cars that earn Top Safety Pick."

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Let's go all the way back to 2006 for some sense of just how much has changed in small car safety. Five years ago just three small cars earned the Top Pick award - the Honda Civic, Saab 9-2X and Subaru Impreza. Just three, even though it was easier in 2006 to get a Top Pick award. Today, a Top Pick vehicle must meet new, tougher requirements for roof strength and anti-rollover technology.

Now let's revisit 1997, when the Institute first put 11 small cars through a 40 mph (64 km/h) frontal offset test. Not one little car earned the top rating of "good," and three were "poor." The first results for small cars in the Institute's side test in 2005 were no more encouraging: not one was "good," and 14 of the 16 models evaluated earned the lowest "poor" rating.

Institute officials say auto makers constantly improve safety features and designs to meet tougher test standards. Indeed, it's rare for any vehicle to earn less than a good rating in front, side, or rear tests. Auto makers are working on rollover protection and making progress there, too.

The Institute, in fact, is a firm believer in the efficacy of electronic stability control (ESC) as a feature capable of saving lives. A recent Institute report on driver death rates for passenger vehicles from 2005-2008 credits ESC for preventing rollover accidents leading to fatalities.

And because of the widespread introduction of ESC, tall vehicles such as SUVs are now safer than regular passenger cars thanks to the reduced rollover risk.

"The rollover risk in SUVs used to outweigh their size/weight advantage, but that's no longer the case," said McCartt in the report.

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ESC across the board in small cars is not far off, as has become the norm for SUVs.

For the record, the seven small cars which did not earn top marks in the most recent IIHS testing were hardly disastrous. Five received an acceptable rating in one or more of the tests: the Honda CR-Z and Insight, the Nissan Versa and Sentra, and the Scion xD.

The Suzuki SX4 received marginal ratings for rollover and rear protection. The Dodge Caliber also was deemed marginal for side protection, but acceptable in the rollover test. None received a poor rating in any test.

And it's more than likely the auto makers who have failed to get a top rating for their small cars will busying themselves upgrading safety features and designs. And fast. Cars that are not Top Picks stand out for a seriously wrong reason.

So stay tuned.

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About the Author
Senior writer, Globe Drive

In 25 years of covering the auto industry, Jeremy Cato has won more than two-dozen awards, including three times being named automotive journalist of the year. Jeremy was born in Montreal and grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area. More

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