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Driving small doesn’t mean you’re less safe

While many Americans don’t mind the thought of giving up the surplus cargo space or towing capacity in large cars, they balk at the idea of trading away safety for fuel economy. That way of thinking is outdated. Driver's Seat, by Dan Carney.
2007 Honda Civics
Honda says it saw the most Civic sales ever during the month of May — evidence that U.S. drivers are thinking smaller according to Dick Colliver, executive vice president of Honda in America.David Zalubowski / AP

Until very recently, Americans supersized their vehicles the same way they supersize their fast food. After all, more is better, right? But with the price of gasoline hitting $3 or even $4 a gallon, more Americans are slimming down their vehicle purchasing habits.

Many are thinking smaller. Honda, for example, recently reported the most Civic sales ever during the month of May. “Small is big right now,” notes Dick Colliver, executive vice president of Honda’s American operations.

However, going from big to small feels uncomfortable for American drivers. While many don’t mind the thought of giving up some surplus cargo space or towing capacity that went unused in large cars, they balk at the idea of trading away safety for fuel economy.

These consumers formed their impressions of small car safety at a time, decades ago, when their ability to protect occupants in a collision left much to be desired. Small cars used to fare poorly in laboratory crash tests and produced grossly higher fatality rates in real-world driving.

But that notion is outdated. Crash protection has been growing, along with the size of the small cars themselves, over the years.

Crash fatalities in the smallest cars on the road fell by 15 percent between 1985 and 1995, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. That was the period when airbags went from a novelty on luxury vehicles to standard equipment on all cars.

Today, small cars feature an array of impressive technologies and thoughtful design touches aimed at maximizing their safety, including front and side airbags. High-strength steel withstands blows with less intrusion into the cabin, and electronic driver aids such as antilock brakes and electronic stability control help reduce crashes.

These factors produce cars that are dramatically safer than the little cars of yore. Additionally, today’s small cars are much bigger and heavier than those of the past. Consider that a 1984 Honda Civic hatchback weighed 1,830 pounds. The lightest version of today’s hot-selling version of the Civic tips the scales at 2,628 pounds, and the Si version weighs 2,945 pounds, more than half a ton heavier than the 1984 model.

Significantly, most compact cars like the Civic approach the 3,000-pound mark that the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety has identified as the weight that provides good crash protection on highways populated with many big trucks and SUVs. That’s the point of diminishing returns, beyond which each extra pound adds less crash protection, according to IIHS spokesman Russell Rader.

What about truly small cars?

The 1985 Chevrolet Sprint weighed 1,540 pounds — that’s less than the tiny, bulletlike cars that raced in the Memorial Day weekend Indy 500. Today’s equivalent, the Chevrolet Aveo, weighs 2,348 pounds.

And the all-new 2008 Scion xB weighs 3,086 pounds when it’s equipped with an automatic transmission. Remarkably, that’s heavier than a 1986 Ford Taurus or Buick Century.

These numbers show today’s small cars aren’t the flyweight deathtraps many consumers suppose. That’s due to stiffer government requirements and consumers’ growing insistence that new cars earn top scores even in non-mandatory crash tests.

For example, the federal government has toughened its requirements for things like side impact protection, mandating more metal in a car’s side. The Insurance Institute's offset front crash test and side-impact test are not government requirements, but customers insist on top scores in them, so car manufacturers respond by adding reinforcing bulk that improves a car’s performance in the tests.

Even some of today’s smallest cars — like the Honda Fit and Toyota’s Yaris — bagged “good” scores (the highest available) from the IIHS’s frontal and side crash tests.

On the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s tests, the Fit earned the maximum five stars in the frontal crash, and five stars for the front seat in the side impact test, with three stars for the back seat in a side crash. The Yaris got four stars for front crashes and three stars for side impacts.

Compare those scores with the old Chevrolet Sprint of 1985. It earned just one star in the frontal test, meaning it met the minimum requirements of that time, but no more. It also weighed much less, so it would be punished more in a collision with a bigger car.

Modern small cars are designed for greater safety too, although few are aware of this fact.

Unlike full-size pickup and SUVs with rigid bumpers and trailer hitches, a small car is more likely to show visible damage in a crash, as the crumple zones collapse to absorb the blow. Too many consumers still equate a badly damaged vehicle with badly injured occupants, when in fact the vehicle is suffering so the passengers don’t have to explains Natae Rayner, senior product education and development administrator for Toyota Motor Sales, U.S.A.

“There are crush zones and crush boxes in the front of the vehicles used to absorb the impact then distribute that force in the proper places,” he said.

This kind of design could, over time, lead to lighter, more efficient cars that still provide the needed protection for a car’s occupants said S.M. Shahed, a corporate fellow for Honeywell Turbo Technologies who researches fuel-saving technologies.

Shahed says that very efficient cars (even ones that get up to 100 miles per gallon) have to be lighter than the ones on the road today. They will still protect the occupants as well as today’s cars, but would probably suffer enough damage to be totaled even in crashes of just 25 mph.

“I think our philosophy needs to change from safety for the vehicle to safety for the occupant,” he said. “What if I have a car that in a 25 mph crash is going be totaled and you are going to be 100 percent safe?” he asked. “If the price you have to pay for a 100 mpg car is totaling the car at 25 mph, I’m willing to pay that price.”

We’re nowhere near 100 mpg today, but there are an increasing number of small cars that score well in crash tests. In addition to the subcompact cars already mentioned, compacts like the Honda Civic, Subaru’s Impreza, Nissan’s Versa and the Toyota Prius all earn “good” scores in both front and side crash tests at IIHS.

No small cars earned five stars in every category of NHTSA’s testing, but many earned a confidence-inspiring mixture of four- and five-star ratings — that’s worth contemplating when you’re paying up to $100 to gas up a supersized vehicle.