Only half the small cars do well in crash tests


Although it’s an expensive way of testing for auto safety, driving a car into a static object is the best way to see how well the vehicle would react to a real-world collision. The question, of course, is whether there are differences between the different crash tests. Both the federal government and the insurance industry do “independent” tests. The results differ because the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety has more stringent tests than the federal government’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration when it comes to front-end testing. The NHTSA carries out full-width crash tests, i.e. the vehicle is propelled into the flat concrete barrier in a straight line. The barrier is wider than the vehicle. This is does reflect the more usual real-world crashes in which drivers swerve to avoid the collision and so the direction of impact is not a straight line and only a part of the front of the vehicle hits the obstruction. The IIHS crash test therefore only uses a barrier representing 25% of the width of the vehicle being tested. This is called a small overlap test and the results have been forcing the motor manufacturers to reinforce the front ends of their models.

Why focus on smaller vehicles?

The market for small vehicles is booming because more people want better gas mileage. Manufacturers have responded by making compacts and subcompacts more comfortable and quieter. According to the manufacturers, sales of smaller cars are up 12% in the first six months of this year. The problem is the size of these vehicles relative to others on the road. Although auto safety design should provide bumpers and crumple zones at the same height across all vehicles, the reality is that larger vehicles are higher off the road and so hit smaller vehicles above their usual protective areas. The manufacturers of smaller vehicles have been dealing with this and, in these latest tests, the Honda Civic earned top honors, the Dodge Dart, Ford Focus and Hyundai Elantra were acceptable, but the Chevrolet Cruze and Sonic, the Volkswagen Beetle, Nissan Sentra and Kia models were borderline or actual fails.

What’s the problem?

The Honda Civic shown above gives the driver good protection when the front of the car hits the barrier. But the IIHS tests show the engineering in the other vehicles fails to give any real protection to the driver. Indeed, in the worst performing cars, the steering wheel was pushed out of the way and the airbag “missed” the driver. Instead the metal was deformed and pushed into the driver’s compartment. This replicates what happens when a vehicle hits a utility pole or only a small part of a larger obstruction, and explains why these accidents usually cause more serious injuries. Unfortunately, the vehicles performing badly cannot immediately be redesigned. They are in production. It will take time for manufacturers, apart from Honda, to adjust to the new tests.

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