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Crash test raises Smart micro car concerns

Image:  Smart car
The French-made vehicle has been sold for about a decade in Europe. It has a steel safety cage, four standard air bags and electronic stability
/ Source: The Associated Press

A government crash test of the 2008 Smart Fortwo micro car, the fuel-sipping vehicle that made its debut in the United States this year, has found a safety concern in side-impact testing, officials said Thursday.

During the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration side test on the Smart two-door, the driver door unlatched and opened. The government said that could lead to a driver or passenger being ejected from the 8-foot, 8-inch vehicle.

NHTSA, however, still gave the car its top score of five stars in side testing because of the ability of the car to protect the driver and passenger from injuries in a crash.

Rae Tyson, a NHTSA spokesman, said the rating is based on the level of protection that the vehicle provides to occupants, but it wanted to note a potential safety implication.

“Given the amount of attention on smaller, more fuel-efficient vehicles in general and this vehicle specifically, we wanted to try to get the vehicle tested and the results out there as quickly as possible,” Tyson said.

A Smart spokesman did not immediately comment on Thursday. Smart, a division of Daimler AG’s Mercedes-Benz brand, began selling the cars in the United States in January.

Test results from the new micro car have been highly anticipated in the auto industry because of the vehicle’s miniature size and concerns that a driver or passenger would be more vulnerable in a crash.

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, a Virginia-based organization that also conducts crash tests, is completing testing on the Fortwo and is expected to release its findings later this month.

The French-made vehicle, which has been sold for about a decade in Europe, has a steel safety cage and four standard air bags, including two in front and two on the sides to protect the head and abdomen. It also has standard electronic stability control, which is designed to stop vehicles from swerving off the road.

Smart has said the vehicle is designed to receive a four-star crash rating from U.S. regulators.

In NHTSA’s testing, the Fortwo received four out of five stars in the front-end crash on the driver’s side. On the passenger side, it received three out of five stars.

In a December interview, Smart USA President Dave Schembri said every showroom would display the vehicle’s tridion safety cell, which protects occupants in a steel housing.

“We’re taking the safety story, and we’re telling it right on the showroom floor every day,” Schembri said. “Because once you walk people through that ... you get it, because you can see it. It acts very much like a NASCAR racing cage.”

The 1,800-pound car gets 33 miles per gallon in the city and 41 miles per gallon on the highway. Smart has marketed the vehicle as a good choice for consumers grappling with high gas prices and urban congestion but unwilling to sacrifice safety.