Small Car Scores Lower in IIHS’s New Harder Side Crash Test piloting

Small Cars Scored Lower in IIHS’s New, Tougher Side Crash Tests
Subaru Crosstrek and Impreza were marked Poor, and only Mazda 3 got the top Good overall rating, although most small cars tested got at least an Acceptable rating in most areas.

Side-impact crashes are especially deadly, and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) wants to change that.
Putting various body styles through its updated side crash test, the IIHS reports that many small sedans and hatchbacks struggled to achieve a Good rating. (All 11 tested had achieved overall Good scores in the original test.)
The Mazda 3 sedan and hatchback received Good ratings, while Honda’s Civic, Nissan’s Sentra, and Toyota’s Corolla received Acceptable grades, and Kia’s Forte (pictured above) and Subaru’s Impreza received Poor marks.
Safety technology within the automotive industry has progressed significantly in the 21st century, with advanced driver-assistance systems becoming standard equipment. Adding these layers of driver redundancy aims to avoid crashes altogether, but driver aids have their limits, and the frequency of traffic crashes has skyrocketed in recent years. When collisions occur, the structure of the vehicle itself can be the difference between serious injury or walking away with a few scratches.

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety has introduced a new crash test to its safety rating regimen. Nearly a quarter of passenger-vehicle occupant fatalities can be traced to severe side impacts, and the IIHS recently updated that test to reflect reality, with a 4200-pound barrier striking the side of test cars at 37 mph. The results for small cars are concerning.

Good or Acceptable Ratings
Of the 11 models tested, only the Mazda 3 hatchback and sedan received the highest mark of Good, with an acceptable level of safety cage damage and a minimal level of injury to the driver’s torso and pelvis. The Honda Civic, Nissan Sentra, and Toyota Corolla all received Acceptable ratings, which is a bump down from Good in IIHS terms, and showed weakness in driver pelvis protection. It’s worth noting that all of these models received an Acceptable rating in the structure and safety cage category—a stark contrast from the Good ratings seen on many mid-size crossovers.

Four Were Graded ‘Poor’
Four of the 11 models tested received Poor overall ratings due to inadequate safety cage construction and significant injury risk to drivers. Kia’s Forte performed the worst, with a marginal safety cage rating and poor protection of the driver’s torso and pelvis, while Subaru’s Impreza and Crosstrek family displayed poor structural safety across the board.

Specifically, the Forte’s crash test resulted in a window-sill head impact through the airbag, adding to the high risk of head injury. Subaru’s crash test also indicated a window-sill head impact and a cabin intrusion of the B-pillar.

Across the board, small sedans and hatchbacks performed poorly as compared with their mid-size crossover counterparts but fared similarly to small crossover and mid-size sedan counterparts.

The IIHS says a higher ride height leads to better performance in the new evaluation, due to the impact being centered closer to the floor as opposed to the door. But this doesn’t mean these small sedans and hatchbacks are inherently unsafe.

“It’s encouraging to see so many small cars with passing grades in this new side test,” said IIHS senior research engineer Becky Mueller, who led development of the new evaluation. “Smaller, lower vehicles are at a disadvantage when struck by the new test barrier, which is a more realistic representation of the front end of a typical modern SUV than our old barrier.”

Even so, it’s clear that a number of manufacturers have figured out how to provide sufficient structural rigidity and crash protection with less material. Additionally, all of these models received a Good rating in the current side-impact test, which uses a 3300-pound barrier traveling at 31 mph. The new test has a 4200-pound barrier strike the side of the vehicle at 37 mph, which IIHS said more closely emulates a real-world impact from a mid-size SUV.

This updated test is not an official test criterion for 2022 model year units, but the institute says that starting in 2023, vehicles will need a Good or Acceptable rating in this upgraded test to get Top Safety Pick or Top Safety Pick+ honors. As the IIHS continues to update safety standards, manufacturers will face pressure to meet these benchmarks, given that IIHS ratings are a significant marker for safety-conscious car buyers.

Last year the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) began running tougher new side impact crash testing designed to replicate real-world situations involving impacts from SUVs. The results are in on late-model small cars: Four models fared poorly, and five others received the second-tier Acceptable rating. Two models—the sedan and hatchback versions of the Mazda 3—received the top Good rating in the test.

“Small vehicles, such as this test group, are most likely to be challenged by the higher speed and heavier barrier of this more stringent side impact test,” says Jennifer Stockburger, director of operations at Consumer Reports’ Auto Test Center. “So it was actually good to see that there were models that performed so well, and that safety features such as head curtain airbags are doing a good job of reducing potential injury, even when these small cars are struck by larger vehicles.”

As a group, lower-slung vehicles, such as midsized sedans, have fared poorly in the new testing so far. Small and midsized SUVs did better. In order to receive a Good rating in either the old or the new side impact testing, a vehicle’s basic interior structure needs to hold up well, and the post-crash condition of two crash-test dummies installed in the driver’s seat and the rear seat directly behind the driver should indicate a low likelihood for severe or fatal injuries. In this test, both dummies are designed to simulate a small woman or 12-year-old child.

All of the models tested were already on the market, and those that performed worst in the tests served as a reminder of how updating crash standards leads manufacturers to build safer cars.

“If you already own one of these small cars, the new IIHS side impact ratings don’t mean that your car has somehow become unsafe,” says Stockburger. “New and more challenging tests are simply the next progression in advancing crash protection, and this group demonstrates that some vehicles do it better than others. Ratings such as this will drive improvements on models that aren’t quite there yet.”


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