Study: Small Cars at Greater Risk in Accidents

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety has released a new report stating that very small cars face significantly greater risk in crashes with midsize cars. IIHS crash-tested three subcompact or microcars – the Honda Fit, Smart ForTwo and Toyota Yaris – versus their respective brand’s midsize sedans in frontal offset tests, similar to how the agency conducts all of its frontal tests.

The results? Physics wins. This is something we mention here on KickingTires and on whenever crash-test results like this come out. Crash tests can generally only predict how well a car or SUV does within its class or competitive makeup, not against other types of vehicles. The exception is IIHS’ side-impact tests, which simulate impacts with SUVs for every vehicle.

What these fresh results from IIHS spell out is that in a frontal collision, physics dictate that the larger vehicle in the test will fare better than the smaller one. Force is distributed unevenly, making the small car lose out in any matchup versus a larger car.

Crash statistics prove this to some degree. In 2007, small-car crashes resulted in a 17% higher fatality rate than midsize-car crashes.

There are legitimate reasons for purchasing small cars like the Fit and Yaris. They are less expensive than larger models and they get better fuel economy. But car shoppers should also consider thrifty midsize cars like the 2009 Chevy Malibu and 2010 Ford Fusion, which get 33 and 34 mpg on the highway, respectively. Both can be had for around $20,000 in base four-cylinder trim, and the Fusion is an IIHS Top Safety Pick. The Malibu got top ratings for frontal and side crash tests, but received only Marginal scores in rear tests. However, these are the exact types of midsize cars that IIHS is saying are safer due to physics.

The Top Safety Pick Honda Accord would also be a safer bet, but an automatic version only gets 30 mpg on the highway. The Toyota Camry gets 31 highway mpg and has the same crash-test ratings as the Chevy Malibu. It too comes in around $20,000 in base form.

Consider that a Honda Fit starts at roughly $15,000 and gets 35 highway mpg, and shoppers with the ability to move up a price class might see a very big safety benefit to doing so.

We’d like to see IIHS try similar tests in the compact class, including the Honda Civic, Toyota Corolla and perhaps a high-volume domestic vehicle, like the Ford Focus. Would that segment, which has seen cars get bigger recently, hold its own against midsize vehicles?


Managing Editor David Thomas has a thing for wagons and owns a 2010 Subaru Outback and a 2005 Volkswagen Passat wagon.  Email David