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Small Cars Scored Lower in IIHS’s New, Tougher Side Crash Tests

  • Side collisions are especially deadly, and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) wants to change that.
  • Putting various body styles through its updated side crash test, the IIHS reports that many small sedans and hatchbacks struggled to earn a Good rating. (All 11 tested had overall good scores in the original test.)
  • The Mazda 3 sedan and hatchback received good ratings, while Honda’s Civic, Nissan’s Sentra and Toyota’s Corolla received Acceptable grades, and Kia’s Forte (photo above) and Subaru’s Impreza received Poor marks.

Safety technology within the automotive industry has advanced significantly in the 21st century, with advanced driver assistance systems becoming standard equipment. Adding these layers of driver redundancy aims to avoid accidents altogether, but driver aids have their limits, and the frequency of traffic accidents has skyrocketed in recent years. When collisions occur, the structure of the vehicle itself can be the difference between serious injury or walking away with a few scratches.

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety has introduced a new crash test to its safety rating regime. Nearly a quarter of passenger vehicle occupant deaths can be traced to serious side impacts, and the IIHS recently updated that test to reflect reality, with a 4,200-pound barrier hitting the side of test cars at 37 mph hit. The results for small cars are worrying.

Good or Acceptable Ratings

Of the 11 models tested, only the Mazda 3 hatchback and sedan received the highest score of Good, with an acceptable level of safety cage damage and a minimal level of injury to the driver’s torso and pelvis. The Honda Civic, Nissan Sentra and Toyota Corolla all received Acceptable ratings, which is a bump from Good in IIHS terms, and showed weakness in driver pelvis protection. It’s worth noting that all of these models received an Acceptable rating in the structure and safety cage category—a sharp contrast from the Good ratings seen on many midsize crossovers.

Mazda3

Mazda’s heritage hatchback had a strong safety cage and delivered results with only a low chance of most injuries.

Mazda

Four were rated ‘poor’

Four of the 11 models tested received poor overall ratings due to inadequate roll cage construction and significant driver injury risk. Kia’s Forte fared worst, with a marginal safety cage rating and poor protection of the driver’s torso and pelvis, while Subaru’s Impreza and Crosstrek families exhibited poor structural safety across the board.

Specifically, the Forte’s crash test resulted in a window sill head impact through the airbag, which adds to the high risk of head injury. Subaru’s crash test also indicated a window sill head-on collision and a cabin intrusion from the B-pillar.

iihs side test for small cars 1122

Insurance Institute for Highway Safety

Overall, small sedans and hatchbacks performed poorly compared to their midsize crossover counterparts, but performed similarly to small crossover and midsize sedan counterparts.

The IIHS says a higher ride height leads to better performance in the new evaluation, due to the impact being centered closer to the floor as opposed to the door. But that doesn’t mean these small sedans and hatchbacks are inherently unsafe.

“It’s encouraging to see so many small cars passing this new side test,” said IIHS senior research engineer Becky Mueller, who led the development of the new evaluation. “Smaller, lower vehicles were disadvantaged when struck by the new test barrier, which is a more realistic representation of the front end of a typical modern SUV than our old barrier.”

Even so, it is clear that a number of manufacturers have figured out how to provide adequate structural rigidity and crash protection with less material. In addition, all of these models received a good rating in the current side impact test, which uses a 3300-pound barrier traveling at 31 mph. The new test has a 4,200-pound barrier hitting the side of the vehicle at 37 mph, which IIHS says better mimics a real impact from a midsize SUV.

This updated test is not an official test benchmark for 2022 model year units, but the institute says that starting in 2023, vehicles will need a Good or Acceptable rating in this upgraded test to earn Top Safety Pick or Top Safety Pick+ honors. As the IIHS continues to update safety standards, manufacturers will face pressure to meet these benchmarks, as IIHS ratings are a significant marker for safety-conscious car buyers.

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