That Won’t Buff Out: Small Cars Suffer in IIHS’ Latest Crash Tests

Source: Thinkstock

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety recently completed crash testing on small cars, and the results are not good. In fact, the only vehicle tested that earned a positive rating out of 12 was the Mini Cooper Countryman. The Countryman was assigned a “good” rating, while five other 2014 models earned “acceptable” ratings. Two others earned “marginal” ratings, and four others were assigned a “poor” rating.

Vehicles that were put to the organization’s test included the all-electric Chevy Volt and Nissan Leaf, along with the hybrid Ford C-Max. Rounding out the lineup were the Nissan Juke, Mazda 5, Fiat 500L, Scion’s xB and FR-S, the Subaru BRZ, and Mitsubishi’s Lancer.

This particular test — the small overlap front crash test – provides an even more strenuous trial than the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s head-on crash test, as it bypasses a vehicle’s main structures within the front-end crush zone. This has an effect on the vehicle’s ability to absorb energy, and as a result, can collapse the passenger cabin. In essence, the test is meant to simulate a collision between a vehicle’s front corner with another car or stationary object. During testing, 25 percent of the vehicle’s front end hits an object at 40 miles per hour.

The surprise winner of the IIHS’s testing, Mini Cooper’s Countryman, impressed testers with how well it held up. Joe Nolan, IIHS senior vice president of vehicle research, says that from testing, they were able to determine that the Countryman’s passengers have a good chance of walking away from a collision unharmed.

“The Mini Cooper Countryman gave a solid performance,” Nolan said. “The Countryman’s safety cage held up reasonably well. The safety belts and airbags worked together to control the test dummy’s movement, and injury measures indicate a low risk of any significant injuries in a real-world crash this severe.”

While the Countryman had an excellent showing, none of the other cars faired as well. That includes the new Mazda 5, which went through the IIHS testing regimen for the first time. The results were less than flattering, as it actually ended up being the worst-performing vehicle ever in the small overlap test. It now shares that title with the Kia Forte and the 2012 Prius v.

Source: Mini

The problems with the Mazda 5 were in no short supply; they were headlined by issues with the main structuring. 

“When we tested the Mazda 5 we saw a host of structural and restraint system problems. Parts of the occupant compartment essentially buckled, allowing way too much intrusion,” said Nolan.

How did the electric and hybrid vehicles do? Fairly well, comparatively. And that comes mostly because of a structural advantage they have over other cars: batteries.

“Electric vehicles have a unique challenge in the small overlap test because of their heavy batteries. The Volt performed reasonably well, earning an acceptable rating, while the Leaf struggled,” said Nolan.

In fact, the Volt was the only vehicle in the test group to earn a 2014 Top Safety Pick+ award, the IIHS’s top honor. A handful of models earned the organization’s second-best honor, the Top Safety Pick. Among those vehicles were the Countryman, C-Max Hybrid, Lancer, BRZ, and FR-S.

Of the models remaining, the worst-performing of the bunch was the Mazda 5, followed by Nissan’s Leaf and Juke, and finally the Fiat 500L.

By all appearances, the smaller the vehicle, the worse it performed during testing. In order to counter these results, consumers looking at purchasing a smaller vehicle should look out for improved and unique safety measures, according to Nolan. It’s obvious that there is a tradeoff when it comes to bigger vehicles, oftentimes giving up safety for improved economy.

Nolan says doing some extra research before settling on a smaller vehicle can make the difference when it comes to safety: “Consumers trading the inherent safety of a larger vehicle for the convenience or fuel economy of a small car should focus their search on these vehicles with state-of-the-art safety designs.”