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Small Cars Yield Surprising Results in Updated Crash Tests

IIHS Test 03 jpg Small car crash test | IIHS image

A common belief is that larger, higher-riding vehicles are better equipped to protect occupants in a crash, but the latest series of crash tests from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety challenge that viewpoint. After putting small SUVs, mid-size SUVs and mid-size cars to the test in its newly developed side impact evaluation, the agency has turned its attention to small cars — ostensibly the most vulnerable group.

Related: IIHS Toughens Up Crash Tests; Many SUVs Fail

The updated IIHS side impact crash test evaluates a vehicle’s ability to protect occupants when struck by a heavier barrier moving at a faster speed: A 4,200-pound barrier moving at 37 mph replaces the original evaluation’s 3,300-pound barrier moving at 31 mph. The agency says the new test better replicates the impact of a collision with a large SUV. Eleven small cars were pitted against the SUV-simulating barrier — yet despite their size disadvantage, the majority came away with passing grades.

Most Small Cars Pull Through

IIHS Test 02 jpg 2022 Toyota Corolla crash test | IIHS image

The test group included the 2022 Honda Civic sedan and hatchback, 2022 Kia Forte, 2022 Mazda3 sedan and hatchback, 2022 Nissan Sentra, 2022-23 Subaru Crosstrek, 2022-23 Subaru Impreza sedan and wagon, and 2022 Toyota Corolla sedan and hatchback. Note that these vehicles weigh significantly less than the 4,200-pound barrier they must contend with; for reference, the curb weight of the Civic sedan ranges from 2,877-3,077 pounds, the Kia Forte’s from 2,769-2,908 pounds and the Mazda 3 sedan’s from 3,126-3,309 pounds.

Despite the David-Versus-Goliath challenge, seven of the cars earned good or acceptable ratings, while only four earned poor ratings. The Mazda3 sedan and hatchback were the only two models to secure good ratings. Interestingly, their small SUV stablemate, the Mazda CX-5, was the sole vehicle in its class to drive away with a good score in a previous IIHS test.

Meanwhile, the Subaru Impreza and Crosstrek’s poor rating shows that crash-test results aren’t always consistent among brands: The larger Subaru Outback was the only mid-size car to earn a good rating among the mid-size car group. Vehicle ratings are listed below:

  • Good: 2023 Mazda 3 sedan and hatchback
  • Acceptable: 2022 Honda Civic sedan and hatchback, 2022 Nissan Sentra, 2022 Toyota Corolla sedan and hatchback
  • Poor: 2022 Kia Forte, 2022-23 Subaru Impreza sedan and wagon, 2022-23 Subaru Crosstrek

The Mazda3 showed a low risk of injury across most categories, and their structure, safety cages and head-protecting airbags held up well in crash tests. The vehicles didn’t earn perfect marks, however, underperforming in the driver’s torso and pelvis categories with a moderate risk of injury.

Among vehicles with an acceptable rating, the structure and safety cage performed relatively well, but it did allow a small amount of intrusion into the occupant compartment. A marginal rating was earned in one driver injury category for each vehicle. Civic and Corolla models earned a marginal rating for pelvis injuries, and the Sentra was rated marginal in the head protection category after the test dummy’s head made contact with the windowsill during the collision.

The Underachievers

IIHS Test 01 jpg 2022 Kia Forte crash test | IIHS image

Among the four vehicles with a poor rating, the structure and safety cage did not hold up as well, with marginal or poor scores across the board. The Kia Forte earned poor scores in the torso and pelvis categories, and the test dummy’s head made hard contact with the windowsill through the side curtain airbag, resulting in a marginal head protection rating.

The Crosstrek and Impreza showed substantial intrusion into the occupant compartment, which increased the risk of torso injuries. While the driver’s head also made contact with the windowsill through the airbag, the impact was mild enough to earn an acceptable rating in the head protection category.

Ride Height Isn’t Everything

Previous IIHS tests seemed to indicate that a higher ride height equates to better performance in the updated crash test (10 mid-size SUVs earned good ratings), but the latest test suggests a vehicle’s length and the length of the occupant compartment also make an impact.

“Doors tend to be weaker than the B-pillar and the frame surrounding the occupant compartment. Small cars have less of that weaker space because of their shorter wheelbase and occupant compartment,” said Raul Arbelaez, vice president of the IIHS Vehicle Research Center.

Top Safety Pick Qualification

The updated side impact crash test will be used to determine IIHS Top Safety Pick eligibility starting in 2023; a good or acceptable rating will be required to qualify for an award. All 11 small cars earned good ratings in the agency’s original test, and all but the Kia Forte and Subaru Impreza earned a Top Safety Pick or Top Safety Pick Plus for 2022.

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Former News Editor Jane Ulitskaya joined the Cars.com team in 2021, and her areas of focus included researching and reporting on vehicle pricing, inventory and auto finance trends. Email Jane Ulitskaya

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