How Safe is Your Small Car?
A new report from the IIHS shows a wide disparity in safety among the popular new crop of fuel-efficient minicars.
Matt Vella - Business Week - Dec. 19, 2006
The 2007 Nissan Versa was the only small car to achieve a “Good Rating” in all 3 crash tests (Front, side and rear) according to the IIHS.
Rising fuel prices and growing environmental concerns among consumers elicited a new mantra from automakers this year: "Small is good." Honda, Nissan, Toyota, and even General Motors hit dealers with new or redesigned subcompacts—all imports from other markets—tiny new citizens in a country of much bigger, heavier, and thirstier trucks and sport utility vehicles.
But in a land of giants, these new Lilliputians may be alarmingly vulnerable. Crash test results released on Dec. 18 by the Arlington (Va.)-based Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) show that so-called minicars can leave occupants in serious peril, especially when they collide with much larger vehicles like the ones that populate most American roads.
Optional Equipment Becomes Necessary
IIHS reported that driver fatality rates in subcompacts are higher than in any other vehicle category. In fact, death rates in minicars are double those in midsize and large cars. Fatalities in single-vehicle accidents, meanwhile, are higher in smaller vehicles than larger ones.
The new crash results show that passengers in very small cars can suffer serious or even fatal injury in collisions with other vehicles, particularly in side- and rear-impact crashes. Of the eight vehicles tested, all but one earned ratings of "poor" or "marginal" in at least one of the three tests administered. Models from Toyota, Scion, and Hyundai earned scores of "poor" in side-impact tests; the Chevrolet Aveo, a rebadged Daewoo import, earned a "marginal" score.
Side-impact tests conducted by IIHS are designed to mimic collisions with larger vehicles. The crash barrier is lifted to the height of a truck or SUV, pitting it directly against the windows of most minicars. The difference in size puts the barrier at head level for passengers and even direct contact in cars without optional side airbags. The results in poorly designed or poorly equipped vehicles aren't pretty.
The difference between serious injury and death can sometimes be a matter of optional equipment. Adrian Lund, president of the IIHS, says: "It's simple physics; the laws of physics dictate that a larger car has more protection. In small cars, then, the optional safety equipment becomes all the more important."
Risk of Serious Injury
Toyota's new Yaris, which is smaller than the Corolla and sells for just above $11,000, illustrates the point. Without optional side airbags, it earned a rating of "poor," the worst mark given by IIHS. When fitted with the additional equipment, it managed a rating of "good," the highest given by the institute. That could make those airbags—part of a $2,130 package on the Yaris—a potentially life-saving option for consumers in certain crash situations.
In some cars, where side airbags either aren't available or where the structural rigidity of the vehicles doesn't effectively prevent penetration, results can be gruesome. In tests of the Scion xB, for example, the barrier intruded into the cabin, striking the driver dummy's head. Measurements taken by the anthropomorphic dummies indicate likely brain damage, serious neck injury, and the equivalent of a fractured pelvis in similar real-world crashes.
The Hyundai Accent, also available badged as the KIA Rio, fared the worst, despite having standard side airbags. Poor structural rigidity in that vehicle showed that real-world occupants would likely sustain internal organ injuries, broken ribs, and a fractured pelvis. It earned "poor" scores in the rear- and side-impact tests and an "acceptable" score in the front-impact test.
Matter of Size or Design?
The only vehicle to achieve all around "good" scores was the new Nissan Versa. IIHS categorizes vehicles as either minicars or small cars according to their weight, width, and length. Though by those standards it is technically a small car, the Versa was included in the results because it competes with the other models, IIHS said in a statement.
All the vehicles tested, besides the Versa, earned low marks in the rear-impact crash tests. While not as life-threatening as side- and front-impact crashes, rear collisions are by far the most common. That type of accident can result in whiplash, the most commonly reported crash injury. Lund says that about 2 million claims that involve minor neck injuries as a result of collisions are filed annually.
Lund says that the poor results aren't entirely a matter of the vehicle's bargain-basement trappings. Instead, Lund notes that automakers will have to design better systems to cope with the increased safety liabilities of smaller vehicles, including better head restraints. "There's no reason that vehicles in this class can't have good protection," he says. "For instance, seats that provide good results in rear-impact crashes don't have to be more expensive, but they have to be designed for the task."
Downward Sales Trend
The results could be bad news for a segment that's been hot all year. According to Autodata, sales of the most affordable models—the domain of subcompacts like Honda's Fit and Chevrolet's Aveo—were up 42.2% through November. Discounts on minicars, meanwhile, are sliver thin, just about 1.5% less than sticker compared with an average discount of 12.5%, according to Edmunds.com.
Small cars are flying out of dealerships, too. According to the Power Information Network, low-priced small cars sit on dealer lots for about 29 days. That's less than half the industry average of 65 days and a whopping 70% less than the 99 days that gas-slurping midsize SUVs are hanging around unsold. (J.D. Power & Associates, like BusinessWeek.com, is a division of The McGraw-Hill Cos.)
But the surge in subcompact sales may be more happy coincidence than long-term trend. Such small vehicles still only make up about 2% of new car sales in the U.S. What's more, market share of economy-class models is trending downward, according to Automotive News. After its market-share peak in May of 13.1%, that segment had dropped to 11.6% of all sales as of September.
New subcompacts could have a built-in shelf life, too. Global Insight predicts that the market will peak by 2010 with only about 500,000 cars sold in the U.S. Analysts also suggest that subcompacts may have enjoyed an outsized bump this year thanks to being brand new. In other words, they could lose some of their luster once larger models are refreshed.
Marginal Fuel Economy
Analysts cite marginal differences in fuel economy between most subcompacts and simply small cars under the same nameplate. For instance, a Toyota Yaris earns a combined 36.5 mpg while a larger Corolla earns 34 mpg. Nissan's Versa gets 33 mpg, just 0.5 mpg more than the Sentra's rating. The bigger Honda Civic, meanwhile, just slightly edges out the smaller Fit.
George Magliano, director of auto research for Global Insight, says potential Versa and Yaris buyers won't have trouble cross-shopping subcompacts and small cars. "Consumers don't shop by segment," he says. "They shop by style and what's new. Quite honestly, if there's a new Sentra or a new Corolla, it's probably going to come down to what looks best, not a sliver of better gas mileage."
Auto executives may not succeed in fulfilling their new maxim, making big stars of small cars. But, as they continue to try to do so, it's clear that manufacturers will have to make gains in future revisions of their products—especially on roads crowded by much larger vehicles.