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A new round of crash tests could give serious pause to those hoping to downsize in order to lower their fuel bills or simply to reduce monthly payments — especially those who don't want to downsize their safety.
Of 11 new minicars examined by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, 10 failed the trade group's challenging new small overlap front test, the sort of crash common in real-world driving. Only the Chevrolet Spark passed, and then just barely — the IIHS dubbing "these tiny vehicles the worst performing group of any evaluated so far."
As a result, the Spark is now the only minicar to earn the group's coveted 2014 Top Safety Pick award. Several other models previously honored lose that endorsement after failing the new crash test, which is designed to replicate what happens when the front corner of a vehicle collides with another car or an object like a utility pole or tree.
"Small, lightweight vehicles have an inherent safety disadvantage. That's why it's even more important to choose one with the best occupant protection," said Joe Nolan, IIHS senior vice president for vehicle research. "Unfortunately, as a group, minicars aren't performing as well as other vehicle categories in the small overlap crash."
But even in the small car category, a step up from minicars, only 5 of 17 models passed recent IIHS frontal crash test.
The new small overlap front test, launched in 2012, has proven difficult for a number of larger vehicles, as well, even those like the midsize Toyota Camry that have had Top Safety Pick and even Top Safety Pick+ ratings revoked in recent months. Automakers have been racing to respond to the new standard by adding additional bracing to the front of their vehicles.
That could prove particularly difficult in the minicar category, where adding any additional mass can have a severe impact on performance and fuel economy, analysts caution.
According to the IIHS, the Honda Fit and Fiat 500 were the worst performers in the minicar group. Both saw the basic structure of the passenger compartment fold up during the crash, so much so that the test dummy's head didn't stay in contact with the frontal airbag, sliding off and hitting the instrument panel. The driver's door on the 500 tore open at its hinges.
The Chevy Spark was the only vehicle to record good injury measurements for all body regions, according to the IIHS. But even though the Korean-made minicar received an "acceptable" rating, a statement from the IIHS noted it "doesn't protect as well as a larger and heavier vehicle with a comparable rating."
The safety group also noted that not a single model among the 11 minicars it tested offers front crash prevention — a radar-guided technology that can, at the minimum, warn a driver of a potential collision. As a result, none of the vehicles, including the Spark, qualify for the IIHS Top Safety Pick+ award.