- The Washington Times - Friday, September 19, 2008

As consumers look for more fuel-efficient vehicles, they are giving smaller vehicles a second look. Recent crash tests by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety show safety-minded consumers that they need to be careful about their picks.

The institute found that many pickups don’t do a very good job of protecting their occupants in a side-impact crash. Meanwhile, many small sport-utilities did well.

Side-impacts are crashes that occur at intersections or when vehicles slide into trees or poles. As the second most common type of fatal crash, they killed almost 9,000 people in 2006, according to the Insurance Institute.

In July, the Institute, which is funded by the insurance industry, conducted side-impact crash tests on five small pickup trucks, all 2008 models. It found that most don’t provide good protection in these crashes.

In August, the Institute found just the opposite when it crashed a group of eight small sport-utility vehicles. The Institute rates on a scale of Good, Acceptable, Marginal and Poor.

Of the small pickup trucks, only the Toyota Tacoma pickup received a rating of Good. The three rated Marginal were the Dodge Dakota; Mitsubishi Raider; Nissan Frontier; Ford Ranger and Mazda B series.

The Chevrolet Colorado/ GMC Canyon received the lowest rating of Poor. The pickup trucks did so poorly that Adrian Lund, insurance institute president, called their side crash ratings “dismal” and said that until they improve they are not good choices for people who are looking for “safe transportation.”

Conversely, the following small SUVs received a Good rating: the 2009 Volkswagen Tiguan; 2008 Mitsubishi Outlander; 2009 Ford Escape/Mazda Tribute/ Mercury Mariner; 2008 Nissan Rogue; and Jeep Patriot with optional front torso airbags. The 2008 Suzuki Grand Vitara received an Acceptable.

Marginal ratings went to the 2008 Chevrolet Equinox/Pontiac Torrent and the 2008 Jeep Patriot when tested without its optional front torso airbags. The two-door ‘08 Jeep Wrangler without optional side airbags got the lowest rating of Poor.

One reason small pickup trucks did so poorly is that side air bags are rarely standard equipment on these vehicles. They are not even available on the Ford Ranger. Side air bags are an important buffer in a side-impact because there isn’t a great deal of the vehicle’s body between the occupant and the intruding vehicle. It isn’t like the front end, which crumples and absorbs crash energy before it reaches the occupants.

Without side air bags protecting the head or the torso in the Chevrolet Colorado (also sold as the GMC Canyon), the head of the crash dummy in the driver’s seat was hit by the top of the moving barrier that crashes into the vehicle.

Also, its side structure allowed “a lot more intrusion” into the occupant compartment than the other pickups according, according to the insurance institute.

When the Jeep Patriot was tested with the standard curtain airbags only and without the optional torso air bags, it earned the second lowest rating of Marginal. Although the curtain air bags did a good job of protecting the heads of the driver and rear passenger crash dummies, the lack of torso airbags indicated that rib fractures and internal organ injuries would be likely in a real-world crash. When the Patriot was tested with the optional torso air bags, its rating improved to Good.

Ratings are based on performance in a crash test in which the side of a vehicle is struck by a barrier the height of a sport-utility or pickup moving at 31 miles per hour.

When side air bags are optional, as in the case of the Patriot, the institute tests without the option because this is the way it believes most vehicles will be sold. An automaker may ask for another test with the optional air bags, if it reimburses the institute for the cost of the vehicle. Chrysler asked for a second test of the Patriot with the optional torso air bags.

The institute also noted that small pickup trucks have the highest driver death rates of any vehicles on the road, partly because they are more likely than other passenger vehicles to be involved in single-vehicle crashes, especially rollovers. Electronic stability control, which tries to correct a skid, is a feature that can help prevent this; but it isn’t available on many pickups.

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