Video: Minivan and small car crash tests

By Lea Thompson Chief consumer correspondent
NBC News

This story airs Dateline Sunday, April 16

You’re cruising down a road or driving through an intersection and in a flash, your life hangs in the balance: Car crashes happens tens of thousands of times a year.

According to Adrian Lund, head of Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, most deaths and injuries in motor vehicle crashes occur in two types— frontal crashes, or side impacts.   

The IIHS has been crash testing cars in a state of the art test facility for more than a decade. It’s goal? To reduce those deaths and injuries, and save money for the insurance companies that fund it.

In this latest round, three small cars and three minivans were put through a demanding test. It simulates a side crash—the second deadliest accident on America’s roads, which typically happens at intersections.

A test sled represents the front end of an SUV or pick-up truck. It’s high off the ground and heavy, and barrels in right at the dummy’s head at 31 miles-per-hour. Lund says all vehicles need a strong structure and they must have something to protect both the dummy’s head and the body.

The institute always tests vehicles with standard equipment. For the first three cars in this round of tests, the vehicles do not come standard with side airbags.

Chevrolet Uplander:  Lund says its structure collapses too much. "It doesn’t keep the barrier out like we would want it to do.We see some high forces on the the neck,a risk of rib fractures or internal organ injuries.it’s a serious impact for the driver."

Lund points out the barrier even knocks rear passenger seat right off it’s hinges. The Chevy Uplander gets the institute’s lowest rating, “poor.”

Dodge Grand Caravan: The results aren’t much better for Dodge’s minivan, the Grand Caravan, even though the structure holds up better. "We see some risk of serious neck injuries and we see a risk of rib fractures and serious internal organ injuries," he says. It’s another “poor” rating.

Toyota Prius: It’s the first so-called hybrid car to be tested by the institute and the Prius is also rated “poor.” "You can see the direct contact to the head from the barrier. A very high force in this impact."

But wait until you see the difference side air bags can make—they do come as options on all three of these vehicles. The manufacturers paid the institute to retest their vehicles with them.

Chevy Uplander with optional side airbags:  It's side airbags is a combination bag that cushions both the head and body. But Lund says the minivan’s structure collapses too much, causing a potential neck injury...and that rear passenger seat comes loose again. So with the optional side airbags, the Uplander improves, but only to a “marginal” rating, the second lowest.

Dodge Grand Caravan with optional side airbags: The vehiclehas head curtain airbags that drop down. Lund says it helps lower some of those injury measures. "It’s not enough to give the vehicle a "good" rating but it gets an "acceptable" rating."

Toyota Prius with optional side airbags:  With airbags, the Prius get the highest rating, "good."

"These crashes are killing thousands of people each year in side impacts.  You need this protection, especially if you’re in a small car," says Lund.

The next three vehicles come with side airbags as standard equipment, you don’t have to pay extra to get them.

Mini Cooper: It may be the smallest car ever to be tested by the institute—the sled is almost as big as the car.

But Lund says the structure holds up well and although there are possible internal injuries, the airbags do an “okay” job of protecting the dummies.

"The Mini Cooper doesn’t get a 'good.'But, it does get an 'acceptable' rating.  That’s a good thing in a small car like this," says Lund.

Subaru Impreza: Another small cardoes even better. Crash readings show the structure holds up and the injury measures are low. The Impreza is rated “good.”

Kia Sedona: "There is no risk here of the barrier making direct contact with the head," says Lund. "And the curtain plus the chest and abdomen airbag that comes with the system do a good job protecting the driver from injury."

Of course, all of these vehicles meet federal safety standards. GM says it knows of “no cases in which a rear seat” of the Uplander “became detached in a side impact” accident. However, it will change the design “to ensure the... seat is retained.”

Toyota tells us “more than 90 percent of Prius’ are sold with side airbags” and it may make them “standard equipment in the future.”

A footnote: Two of these vehicles, the Kia Sedona minivan and the Toyota Prius  were put through a 40-mile-per hour frontal offset crash test as well. Both earned the institute’s highest rating “good” in the test.

More and more cars getting great ratings these days "The big thing is they’ve improved the structures of the vehicles. We are seeing the energy of the crash absorbed up in the front of the vehicle. And we see strong occupant compartments that retain the space inside the cabin so that there’s room for the safety belts and the airbags here to protect you," says Lund.

Recently the institute began giving out what it calls its "top safety pick awards" to the vehicles that do best in the crash tests. In the latest round, awards went to the Kia Sedona and the Subaru Impreza.

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