News & Politics

Just How Safe, or Unsafe, Are Minicars?

After a recent negative crash test report, we talk with the report’s researcher.

The Chevrolet Spark, the only minicar to do well in a recent crash test study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. Photographs by Carol Ross Joynt.

At the Washington Auto Show, which opened Thursday and runs through next Sunday, cute, efficient minicars have been drawing attention for more than just their trim lines and high EPAs: The day before the Auto Show opened, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety released a new report on a minicar crash test in which only one model out of 11 received an acceptable rating tested. The Chevrolet Spark came in at the top of the list, while the Fiat 500 and Honda Fit earned the bottom spots.

The test, called a “small-overlap frontal crash test,” is one of five performed by the industry-funded IIHS that measure cars’ crash-worthiness. (The federal government, through the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, also performs crash tests.)

The criteria evaluated in the report include structure, restraints, kinematics, and impact on head and neck, chest, hip and thigh, and lower leg and foot. The possible ratings are good, acceptable, marginal or poor.

The Spark got four “goods,” one “marginal” and one “acceptable,” with an “acceptable” overall. The Fiat 500 and Honda Fit each got three “poors,” two “goods,” and one “marginal” with a “poor” overall. The current version of the popular Mini Cooper, with a new model due out soon, wasn’t tested.

Joe Nolan, senior vice president of vehicle research at IIHS, has been researching crash-worthiness for 22 years. He is based in Ruckersville, Virginia, just north of Charlottesville, where the testing facility is located. He played a principal role in the tests that resulted in the most recent report on minicars. We talked with him on Friday.

What is the overlap test, and how does it differ from the other tests you do on automobiles?

In 2012 we introduced this new small-overlap frontal crash test, where only one quarter of the front end strikes a barrier. That simulates what happens when you cross the center line and hit an oncoming vehicle, or if you go off the road and hit a tree. Most vehicles do well in our moderate-overlap and side-impact tests, but this new test is where we’re seeing the discrimination between the models.

Did the most recent test results for minicars surprise you?

We were a little surprised that of 11 vehicles only one didn’t earn poor ratings.

Among the categories you evaluate is kinematics. What’s that?

It’s the study of motion. It’s how the dummy moves in the vehicle during the crash. We evaluate the kinematics to assess the restraint system, the seatbelt and air bags, and how they work together to keep you in an optimal position and protected.

Do the car companies respond to you after such a report is released?

They let us know when new products will be coming on the market that will be performing differently than the one we tested. Many are anxious to get upgraded ratings published as quickly as possible. A good example is the new Honda Fit, which will come out in the first quarter of this year. Honda is optimistic it will earn a good rating.

If the wave of the future may be smaller cars, what is the message here for manufacturers?

The message should be that since they have an inherent safety disadvantage because of their size and weight, these vehicles should have the absolute best crash-worthiness performance. In Europe there are a lot more small cars and not as many SUVs. It’s hard to reconcile an Escalade on the same roads as a Scion SQ and, of course, the heavy-duty pickup trucks.

What’s the best way for a buyer to do due diligence when buying a minicar, or any car for that matter?

It’s reviewing the data that’s available—the crash ratings, the consumer magazine feedback. If you are shopping for safety it’s the crash ratings. We’d like people, if not sure what size vehicle they need, to think about a slightly larger car that offers fuel economy comparable to the smaller car.

How do your tests compare to the tests of the federal government?

The [federal government’s] are based on a different suite of tests. What we like to tell people is that most vehicles do well in the government tests, so for sure you shouldn’t buy a car that doesn’t do well in the government testing. But then beyond that, they should choose one that does well in our suite of tests.

The Fiat 500, which ranked next to last in the IIHS crash test study.