Best and Worst Small Cars for Safety

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety says six small cars received its “Top Safety Pick+” award, earning a “good” rating in at least four of five categories in the IIHS’ small overlap front crash test.

The small overlap front test simulates a collision with another vehicle or a utility pole. In the test, 25 percent of a vehicle’s front end on the driver’s side strikes a 5-foot-tall barrier at 40 mph with a crash test dummy behind the wheel.

The IIHS introduced the award in 2012 to recognize models with superior crash protection. The “plus” indicates good or acceptable performance.

Click through the slide show to see which small car models performed best.

Top Safety + Award Winners:

5. 2014 Toyota Scion tC

Toyota changed the airbag algorithm in this model to allow the side curtain airbags to deploy in a small overlap crash. Without the change, the IIHS notes, the car would have received a “marginal” rating instead of “acceptable.”

(AP Photo/Richard Drew)

4. 2013 Hyundai Elantra

Good side curtain coverage earned the car an “acceptable” rating, even though the safety belt allowed the dummy to move forward 11 inches. Among vehicles in which the side curtain airbags deployed, the Elantra, offered sufficient forward coverage.

3. 2013 Dodge Dart

Rated “acceptable” in the small overlap test. The Dart was tested twice because of an on-board camera malfunction the first time around. In the retest, the car’s driver door opened when the hinges tore away for the door frame. In the initial test, the hinges were severely damaged and the lower one tore away, but the door stayed shut. The Dart’s belts and front and side curtain airbags effectively protected the dummy’s head and upper body.

(AP Photo/Dodge Brand Media)

2. 2013 Ford Focus

Rated “acceptable” in the small overlap test. In many vehicles, the impact at a 25 percent overlap misses the primary structures designed to manage crash energy. That increases the risk of severe damage to or collapse of the occupant compartment structure. The IIHS rates vehicles “good,” “acceptable,” “marginal” or “poor” based on performance in a moderate overlap front crash, small overlap crash, side impact and rollover test. Tests also evaluate seat/head restraints for protection against neck injuries in rear-end collisions.

1. 2013 Honda Civic (received two awards for its 2-door and 4-door models)

Received the top rating of “good” in the small overlap front test. Dummy movement was well controlled and both cars had only minimal intrusion into the occupant compartment, so survival space was well-maintained. To date, 25 vehicles have received the award. (Winners have to earn “good” ratings for occupant protection in four of five evaluations and no less than “acceptable” in the fifth test.)

(AP Photo/Honda)

Worst-rated vehicles:

2013 Volkswagen Beetle

Overall “marginal” rating

Most new models are designed to do well in the federal government’s full width front crash test and in the IIHS’ moderate overlap front test, but that is not a guarantee of good performance in the small overlap crash. That is what happened to the Beetle. On impact, the steering column moved close to five inches to the right as the dummy’s body moved forward. The rotation meant that the dummy’s head barely contacted the front airbag. Another issue was the safety belt spooling out, allowing the dummy to move forward 13 inches and hitting his head on the dashboard.

2013 Chevrolet Sonic

“Marginal” rating for restraints and kinematics and acceptable for structure

Timing the side airbag to deploy to provide optimal head protection in the small overlap front crash test is key. In the test, the airbag deployed after the dummy had already moved toward the open drive window, leaving its head on the wrong side of the curtain airbag.

(AP Photo/General Motors)

2014 Kia Forte

Worst performer

Too much seat belt slack and a side curtain airbag that deployed but didn’t allow enough forward coverage, allowing the dummy’s head to hit the windshield pillar and instrument panel.

“The small cars with ‘marginal’ or ‘poor’ ratings had some of the same structural and restraint system issues as other models we’ve tested,” says IIHS Chief Research Officer David Zuby. “In the worst cases safety cages collapsed, driver airbags moved sideways with unstable steering columns and the dummy’s head hit the instrument panel. Side curtain airbags didn’t deploy or didn’t provide enough forward coverage to make a difference. All of this adds up to marginal or poor protection in a small overlap crash.”

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