Diminutive Two-Seater Earns Top Ratings in Front and Side Crashes

May 23, 2008

The Smart Car got a lot of attention for its small size and style. Now, the smallest car for sale in the U.S. is getting attention for impressive crash test ratings. In recent Insurance Institute for Highway Safety tests, the 2008 Smart Fortwo earned the top rating for front and side crash protection. Its seat/head restraints earned the second highest rating of acceptable for protection against whiplash in rear impacts.

Classified as a microcar, meaning it’s smaller even than minicars, Smart Fortwo weighs about 1,800 pounds. More than 3 feet shorter, and 700 pounds lighter than a Mini Cooper and weighs a third of the BMW X5.

With the price of fuel climbing and tougher federal fuel economy requirements kicking in, more auto companies plan to introduce small vehicles. Adrian Lund, president, IIHS, said safety concerns small car consumers, “The big question from consumers is, ‘How safe?'”

IIHS’s test results generally demonstrate how well vehicles stack up against others of similar size and weight. Frontal ratings can’t be compared across weight classes, meaning a small car with a good rating isn’t safer than a large car with a fair rating. “All things being equal in safety, bigger and heavier is always better. But among the smallest cars, the engineers of the Smart did their homework and designed a high level of safety into a very small package,” said Lund.

The Smart’s crashworthy design features the latest safety gear including seat-mounted combination side airbags; standard electronic stability control (ESC) to help drivers maintain control during emergency maneuvers or on slippery roads. It engages automatically after sensing instability and Institute research found it lowers the risk of fatal crashes involving single-vehicles by half.

While small cars are safer now, so are large cars. In every category of passenger vehicle, the risk of death is higher in crashes of smaller, lighter models. For vehicles 1-3 years old during 2006, minicars experienced 106 driver deaths per million registered vehicles compared with 69 driver deaths in large cars.

People often choose very light cars for fuel economy, “You don’t have to buy the smallest, lightest car to get one that’s easy on fuel consumption,” Lund said. “The Toyota Prius http://www.toyota.com/prius-hybrid/, for example, earns good front and side crash test ratings. It gets better fuel economy than a microcar, but it’s bigger and weighs more so we would expect it would be more protective in serious crashes.”

Source: Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

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