The Insurance Institute of Highway Safety has concluded what most consumers already know: though minicars may be frugal on gas, they're also meager on safety benefits.
"Though much safer than they were a few years ago, minicars as a group do a comparatively poor job of protecting people in crashes, simply because they are smaller and lighter," Institute president Adrian Lund said in the report. "In collisions with bigger vehicles, the forces acting on the smaller ones are higher, and there's less distance from the front of a small car to the occupant compartment to 'ride down' the impact. These and other factors increase injury likelihood."
The IIHS performed three 40-mph front-to-front crash tests, each involving a sub-compact car matched up against a midsize car from the same automaker. Daimler, Honda and Toyota were picked because they each have minicars that the IIHS has rated highly in frontal barrier crash tests. SUVs, trucks and large cars were avoided in this test in order to demonstrate how even a modest increase in weight and size can affect vehicle-to-vehicle crashes.
Despite their high ratings when crashed into barriers, the minicars fare far worse when confronting other vehicles. The Honda Fit, Smart Fortwo and Toyota Yaris all earned poor ratings in the tests, with a high likelihood of injury to the driver present in all the vehicles. Though all the small cars did terribly, the Fortwo - the smallest of the size vehicles - performed the worst: when it collided with a C-class, it went airborne and spun around 450 degrees.
The Honda Accord and Mercedes-Benz C-class used in the tests both held up very well in the tests, while the Toyota Camry performed acceptably.
The IIHS used the tests to counter several popular myths about the safety of small cars. Some proponents of minicars say that with the added benefit of today's safety features, such as airbags, safety belts and stability control, vehicles like the Smart Fortwo are just as safe as large cars. The IIHS counters that larger cars have been equipped with those same features, so minicars don't have any advantages there.
Another contention is that small cars are easier to maneuver out of impending crashes than larger vehicles - but the IIHS says the frequency of insurance claims are higher for 4-door minis than for midsize cars. Other statistics reinforce that the added size and weight of larger cars makes them safer than smaller cars: the death rate in 1- to 3-year-old minicars involved in multiple-vehicle crashes is twice as high as the rate in large cars, and the death rate per million in 1- to 3-year-old minicars involved in single-vehicle accidents is 35, compared to 17 per million in midsize cars and 11 per million in small cars.
"There are good reasons people buy minicars," Lund said. "They're more affordable and they use less gas. But the safety trade-offs are clear from our new tests."