The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety has tested few -- if any -- recent mainstream electric vehicles, but after the 2011 Chevrolet Volt and the 2011 Nissan Leaf passed a battery (pun intended) of tests, both models have been named as IIHS Top Safety Picks.
"What powers the wheels is different, but the level of safety for the Volt and Leaf is as high as any of our other top crash test performers," says Joe Nolan, chief administrative officer of the IIHS.
Receiving the highest "good" rating in frontal, side, rear, and rollover accident tests, the Volt and Leaf each were awarded the institute's Top Safety Pick award. The IIHS prides itself as having a different set of tests than the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, beginning with its frontal impact trial. Rather than ramming a vehicle squarely into a barrier at 35 mph, the IIHS performs an offset test at 40 mph. A good rollover rating requires a roof crush of no more than 5 inches when subjected to four times the vehicle's weight. Side impact testing examines a vehicle's ability to withstand a 3300-pound vehicle striking the car's sides at 31 mph.
The IIHS partially attributes the high marks for both EVs to their high mass. Although classified by the Environmental Protection Agency as small cars, the curb weight of the pair are much closer to that of mid and full-size offerings. Heavier vehicles typically perform better in crash tests because they are thrown around far less than those with less heft.
"Eco-minded drivers keen on switching to electric [vehicles] would do well to buy a Leaf or Volt for highway driving, instead of a low-speed vehicle (like a GEM, Wheego, or another neighborhood electric vehicle)," says Nolan. "The way an electric or hybrid model earns top crash test ratings is the same as any other car. Its structure must manage crash damage so the occupant compartment stays intact, and the safety belts and airbags keep people from hitting hard surfaces in- and outside of the vehicle."
The Leaf and Volt join 78 other 2011 and 2012 vehicles receiving the top marks, placing them into the 57th percentile. Both the EVs have yet to be tested by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, but are expected to emerge from the agency's revised 2011 NCAP test procedures with decent marks.