• Tests include new small overlap front crash test
  • Only Honda Civic earned top score in newest test
  • 6 of 12 models earned a Top Safety Pick+ designation

Conventional thinking suggests that the size of a vehicle is directly related to its safety. Bigger cars are safer, some say, while smaller cars lack the mass to protect occupants. But crash tests often disprove this, with some small cars performing better in controlled tests than larger vehicles. In recent testing by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), half of small cars tested earned the institute's Top Safety Pick+ rating, its highest score. These tests included the new small overlap front crash test that IIHS introduced last year.

The new test simulates a frontal crash into a tree or utility pole. At 40 miles per hour, the vehicle impacts a barrier that covers just 25 percent of the width of the vehicle's front end, concentrating forces on a small area. IIHS assesses the damage and assigns one of four ratings: Good, Acceptable, Marginal or Poor. Only vehicles rated Good or Acceptable are eligible for a Top Safety Pick+ rating. Vehicles also must rate highly in IIHS's other four tests -- moderate overlap front, side, roof strength, and head restraints and seats -- to be named Top Safety Pick+.

Six of the 12 small cars undergoing the new small overlap test qualified for a Top Safety Pick+ rating: Honda Civic 2-door, Honda Civic 4-door, Dodge Dart, Ford Focus, Hyundai Elantra and 2014 Scion tC. Of those, only the two Civic models earned the best rating of Good. Others were rated Acceptable. Strong performance in other IIHS testing earned these six models a Top Safety Pick+ designation, as well.

Two Chevrolet models and one Volkswagen model came up just short of qualifying as a Top Safety Pick+. The Chevy Sonic and Cruze, and VW Beetle each earned Marginal ratings in the small overlap test. Three other small cars -- Nissan Sentra, Kia Soul and Kia Forte -- received ratings of Poor in the new test.

While some performed better than others, the results illustrate that just because a vehicle is small doesn't mean it will not effectively protect occupants. IIHS chief research officer David Zuby echoed that sentiment.

"The small cars with marginal or poor ratings had some of the same structural and restraint system issues as other models we've tested," Zuby said. "In the worst cases safety cages collapsed, driver airbags moved sideways with unstable steering columns and the dummy's head hit the instrument panel. Side curtain airbags didn't deploy or didn't provide enough forward coverage to make a difference. All of this adds up to marginal or poor protection in a small overlap crash."

What it means to you: Be sure to consider safety ratings before making your next car-buying decision. While crash tests cannot simulate all the factors involved in a real crash, they can provide shoppers with a safety comparison for two or more models. The federal government rates safety and lists ratings on new-car window stickers. IIHS ratings offer shoppers a second opinion.

author photo

Nick Palermo is an automotive writer and lifelong car nut. He follows new and late-model used vehicles for AutoTrader.com, writes about vintage cars for Hemmings Classic Wheels and blogs on all things automotive at LivingVroom. He lives in Atlanta with his wife and twins.

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