How Safe Are Sports Cars?

2004 Audi TT
The Audi TT’s standard safety equipment includes an electronic stability program and side-impact airbags.

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When comparing the safety of various kinds of vehicles, one important factor to consider is a vehicle’s size, which is closely related to its weight. Like other vehicle categories, larger sports cars tend to fare better in a collision than compact ones.

On the whole, though, sports cars are smaller overall than the average vehicle, and many are lighter. Most sports cars carry only two occupants. Those that are set up for four passengers typically have a small backseat.

In other respects, sports cars differ markedly from the rest of the vehicle pack. For one thing, their drivers are often markedly different. There are exceptions, of course, but sports-car drivers tend to be more aggressive and often drive at higher speeds — perhaps taking more chances. This is even truer when they’re behind the wheel of a particularly powerful model.

Some sports-car drivers are young, but these cars are also popular with older folks who would’ve liked a sports car earlier in their lives but were compelled by family or financial obligations to choose more practical vehicles. They, too, may be more inclined to drive assertively.

In contrast, sedans and wagons tend to be driven by tamer, family-focused people who are statistically less likely to be involved in automobile mishaps.

Because sports cars sit lower to the ground than sedans and they have a lower center of gravity, sports cars are likely to be more stable on the road. Steering is more precise, so the driver may be better able to steer away from a potential hazard. These vehicles also tend to have stronger brakes, which could help in an emergency. Quite a few have stability enhancement systems that could allow the driver to maintain control in a difficult maneuver.

On the negative side, the low stance can make it more difficult to see past larger vehicles on the highway. Their smaller dimensions may also make a sports car more vulnerable in a collision with a full-size sport utility vehicle or pickup truck.

2004 Volvo C70
Volvo’s C70 convertible has roll bars that pop up when a rollover is imminent.

Quite a few sports cars are convertibles, and the prospect of having a fabric top rather than a steel roof over your head is another factor to consider. Studies by the government and other agencies regarding the safety of convertible tops, especially in rollover incidents, have not produced tangible, definitive risk statistics. Several manufacturers promote the structural integrity of their convertibles’ windshield pillars, claiming that they are able to hold considerably more than the weight of the car in the event of a rollover. A few soft-top models are equipped with roll bars that deploy when sensors detect an impending rollover.

Still, common sense dictates that the absence of a solid roof might contribute to an increase in the likelihood of injury or death if the car should roll over. And such an outcome is more likely when it’s driven with exuberance.

Exotic and high-performance sports cars are built in low numbers. Nevertheless, they must meet basic federal safety standards in the United States in order to be sold here. In that respect, all sports cars are equal. They must be capable of passing the federal government’s minimal 30-mph crash-test procedure, and they must at least be equipped with dual front airbags. Beyond those requirements, the safety features in sports cars vary considerably.

Crash Tests Help Assess Safety
Each year, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) crash-tests selected vehicles at 35 mph by running them into a frontal barrier. This federal agency issues star ratings for each model tested and also provides separate frontal crash-test ratings for the driver and front passenger. Side-impact tests are also conducted, and separate scores are listed for the front and rear occupants.

Only selected models are tested at this higher, 35-mph speed. Of all the sports cars available in 2004, a little more than a dozen have been tested recently by NHTSA, and not all of those got the full test treatment. Fewer yet are fully tested for side-impact crashes either because they lack a backseat or that seat is too small to permit a valid test.

2004 Honda Civic Si
The Honda Civic Si hatchback is one of the top-performing sports cars in government crash testing, with five-star ratings for frontal impacts.

Three of those sports cars — the Acura RSX, Ford Mustang coupe and Honda Civic Si hatchback — earned NHTSA’s top, five-star rating in the frontal-impact test, which suggests the best protection for the driver and front passenger. The Ford Thunderbird and Mazda MX-5 Miata got a four-star rating for the driver and a five-star score for the front passenger. Four-star ratings for both front positions went to the Audi S4, BMW Z4, Honda S2000, Mini Cooper S, Mitsubishi Eclipse coupe and Toyota Celica.

In side-impact testing, four sports cars earned five-star ratings for front occupants: the Audi S4, Ford Thunderbird, Honda S2000 and Nissan 350Z. Five models managed to earn only three-star ratings for front occupants: the BMW Z4, Ford Mustang coupe, Mazda MX-5 Miata, Mitsubishi Eclipse coupe and Toyota Celica. Mitsubishi’s Lancer Evolution scored only two stars for front occupants in side-impact testing.

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), which is funded by the insurance industry, conducts its own crash tests by driving vehicles into an offset barrier at 40 mph. Like NHTSA with its 35-mph crash tests, the IIHS tests vehicles that sell in high volumes. The IIHS has not yet tested any 2004 sports cars.

New Safety Features for 2004
As usual, safety items aren’t high on the list of new sports-car features for the 2004 model year. Porsche has a new antilock braking system in its costly 911 GT2 coupe. Nissan has installed kneepads for the driver and front passenger in the 350Z. Mitsubishi has gone in the opposite direction, offering a new stripped-down RS version of its performance-oriented Lancer Evolution, which lacks the antilock brakes that go into the regular model.

Nearly all sports cars have antilock brakes, but a handful of lower-end models offer them as optional equipment only. Side-impact airbags are standard in about half of all sports cars and optional in a few more. Some model lineups offer these airbags as standard equipment, but only on selected versions. The Mercedes-Benz CLK-Class and the Bentley Continental GT have side-impact airbags for both the front and rear passengers. Rear-seat side-impact airbags are available as an option in the BMW M3 coupe and convertible.

2004 Volkswagen GTI
Volkswagen’s GTI comes standard with side-impact and side curtain-type airbags.

Roof-mounted side curtain-type airbags, on the other hand, are comparative rarities in this segment. That’s partly because many sports cars are convertibles or snug two-seat coupes, where the installation of curtain airbags would be difficult, if not impossible. Mercedes-Benz includes standard curtain-type airbags in its C-Class Sports Coupe and CLK-Class coupe. The Audi S4 sedan and Avant wagon, Bentley Continental GT, Mini Cooper S, and Volkswagen GTI and R32 also include curtain-type airbags as standard equipment; Nissan offers them as an option in the 350Z coupe. Two-seaters may have a shutoff switch for the passenger-side airbag.

Several convertibles offer rollover protection, which is typically supplied by roll bars that pop up behind the seats during a collision. These sports cars tend to be higher-end models and include the BMW M3, Mercedes-Benz SL-Class, Porsche 911s and Volvo C70.

Stability enhancement systems are standard in nearly one-third of all sports cars and optional in several others. They’re more common in regular sport coupes and convertibles than in exotics and high-performance models. Drivers who understand the benefits of an electronic stability system are likely to favor such equipment. This technology can help keep a car under control in difficult conditions.

Why do some sports cars lack certain safety features that are found on other models? Why don’t they all have stability enhancement and a full set of airbags? The answer is simple: cost. Automakers are constantly searching for ways to reduce costs, and eliminating equipment is one way to accomplish that goal. Lower-priced models typically suffer the most when cost considerations eliminate safety features. In contrast, most premium models from the likes of Audi, BMW, Mercedes-Benz, Porsche and Volvo are filled with advanced safety components.

2004 Dodge Viper SRT-10
The Dodge Viper SRT-10 is not available with an electronic stability system, but with an engine that generates 500 hp and 525 pounds-feet of torque, it’s arguably in need of one.

On the other hand, exotic and high-performance sports cars often have fewer safety features than their less-costly cousins. Psychological factors enter the picture here. Not only are some drivers unwilling to pay extra money for optional safety features, but they may not want them as standard equipment — even if their merits are well known.

Sports-car drivers typically like to rely on their own driving skills in difficult situations. For many, that’s part of the appeal of owning a precise-handling performance machine. Therefore, they may be less inclined to want to depend on technology for assistance even if that means doing without certain modern safety features.

Relying on electronic sensors and controls, they insist, would take away much of the pleasure of driving. Some automakers that include traction control in their sports cars install a cutoff switch so performance-minded drivers can shun the presumed benefit of traction assistance. Other drivers are more than happy to let such technological marvels as stability enhancement provide a bit of help if they happen to overestimate their driving abilities.

By Jim Flammang for

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Posted on 4/7/04