If you're considering a small car for your next vehicle, it's likely you're concerned about safety. The reason is that most shoppers think small cars don't stand a chance in a collision with one of the many full-size trucks or SUVs on the roads today. But is that really true? Are smaller vehicles more dangerous than larger ones? We've investigated.
One easy and objective way to compare small and large vehicles is government crash tests. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) tests each car the same way: with front-impact, side-impact and rollover tests.
In those tests, small cars fare about as well as larger vehicles. The tiny Honda Fit, for instance, earns four overall stars -- the same rating as the large Ford Expedition. And the subcompact Chevrolet Sonic's 5-star rating actually trumps crash-test scores for Chevrolet's large Suburban SUV, which attained only four stars.
How can this be? One explanation is crumple zones -- portions of the car designed to break or fold in a crash. While most automakers used to believe that a larger car is safer, that's no longer the case with crumple zones. Although crumple zones can lead to costly repair bills, they also minimize force and keep the worst parts of a crash away from the passenger compartment.
Small vehicles also hold another advantage over larger ones: They have a much lower rollover risk. Both the Chevrolet Suburban and the Ford Expedition received only three stars in NHTSA rollover tests, largely because the center of gravity in a SUV or pickup makes those vehicles more prone to rolling over. That's rarely the case in small cars, which boast a low center of gravity and therefore less likelihood of a rollover.
So small vehicles seem to stack up well in government crash tests, and their rollover risk is much lower than the risk in a SUV or pickup.
Does that mean small cars are just as safe as larger vehicles? Not necessarily, and it's for the reason you're probably guessing. Because a SUV or truck sits higher off the ground, those vehicles are unlikely to be involved in a side impact where occupants' heads might be in danger. That isn't true in a small car, where an occupant's head may line up with the bumper in a large truck or SUV.
But that doesn't mean small vehicles are so unsafe they shouldn't be driven. On the contrary, while older small cars don't have many measures to help occupants in a serious side impact with a large vehicle, new ones do. Consider curtain side airbags, side-impact protection systems in doors and even new technologies such as blind spot monitors and rear cross-traffic alert. Each of these systems helps level the playing field for small-car drivers in a world increasingly filled with trucks and SUVs.
Our Conclusion: Don't Worry
Yes, some small vehicles aren't as safe as larger vehicles -- especially older models. But with today's technology, small cars boast a lot of ways to keep you safe in a crash. If you're looking for a small car, buy the safest one you can and drive defensively. That way, you'll probably never need to worry about protection in a collision. But even if you do, your car will be there for you.