- The Washington Times - Friday, January 2, 2009

Small cars are doing well in protecting passengers in frontal crash tests — but small cars continue to lag in side impact protection, even though measurable improvement has been made since 2006.

Recently, I wrote that most new small cars earned the highest ratings for frontal crash test protection in a new round of crash tests done by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS). However, most didn’t do as well when it came to providing protection in side and rear crashes.

The Insurance Institute tested seven 2009 small cars for frontal, side and rear crash protection: the Chevy HHR, Chrysler PT Cruiser, Ford Focus, Hyundai Elantra, Saturn Astra, Suzuki SX4, Toyota Matrix and Pontiac Vibe.

All seven received the highest rating of “good” in the frontal crash test in a system that ranks vehicles on a scale of good, acceptable, marginal and poor. Only the Matrix, Vibe and the SX4 earned the “good” rating for side crash protection. Despite this less than stellar showing overall, side crash protection has been improving, according to the Insurance Institute.

In 2006, which was the last time the Institute did a comprehensive round of small car testing, only three of the 19 cars tested earned a rating of “good.” Most were rated “poor.”

Now, 11 of the 21 small cars that the IIHS has rated have earned “good” ratings for side crash protection. The improvement has come as automakers have made side structures of these vehicles stronger and have made airbags that protect the head standard equipment.

IIHS’s side crash tests are tough on smaller, lighter cars because the barrier used to strike the vehicle approximates the front end of a truck or SUV. This means it crashes into the side of a car at the head level of the two crash dummies, which are positioned in the driver’s seat and in the rear seat behind the driver.

That is why side airbags that protect the head are so important for anyone who buys a small car. And that’s why the small cars crashed in 2006 did so poorly in the side crash test, the Institute said: Side airbags were mostly optional in that round of testing. In the current test round, side airbags with head protection are standard in all seven vehicles.

Of these seven vehicles, only two had been tested for side crash protection before - the Ford Focus and the Hyundai Elantra. The Focus earned an “acceptable” rating in this side evaluation, but that was an improvement from the earlier rating of “poor.” The Elantra received a rating of “marginal,” which was an improvement from a “poor” rating in 2006.

The HHR was rated “acceptable” and the Astra was rated “marginal.” The PT Cruiser was the only small car in this bunch to get the lowest side impact rating of “poor,” and it had the dubious distinction of being the only small car to also earn a “poor” rating for rear crash protection.

In the rear crash tests, the HHR and the SX4 got the next-highest rating of “marginal”; the Elantra and the Astra were rated “acceptable”; and the Focus was the only small car that got the highest rating of “good.”

When the Institute does the crash tests, the crash dummies inside are hooked up to sensors that record the impact of the crashes on the dummies. In the PT Cruiser’s side test, the information from the driver dummy indicates that in a similarly severe real-world crash a driver would be likely to sustain rib fractures and internal organ injuries, as well as possible pelvic fractures.

In the rear, the dummy’s head hit the C-pillar because, even though this vehicle has side airbags that protect the head, they only cover the front seat area, not the rear. All the other vehicles have head airbags that cover both the front and rear. The information from the dummy indicates that serious neck injuries and a fractured pelvis would be possible for a person sitting behind the driver in a real-world crash.

With a “poor” rating for both side-impact and rear-crash protection, the IIHS warned that the PT Cruiser does not offer the same level of crash protection as other small cars and said there are many good alternatives to it.

They also warn that, although protection in this car segment is improving, no one can escape the laws of physics: People riding in smaller, lighter cars don’t fare as well in crashes as people riding in bigger and heavier ones.

Copyright, Motor Matters, 2008

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