Subcompact cars stumble in new crash tests

By Jerry Hirsch / Los Angeles Times

Ten of the 11 economy cars crash-tested by the leading insurance industry group failed a new safety standard for front-end collisions.

Only the Chevrolet Spark earned an “acceptable” grade on the test, in which 25 percent of the front end, on the driver’s side, strikes a 5-foot-tall barrier at 40 mph.

The Honda Fit, Fiat 500, Hyundai Accent, Nissan Versa, Toyota Prius C and Mitsubishi Mirage all received “poor” grades, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. The Mazda 2, Kia Rio, Toyota Yaris and Ford Fiesta earned “marginal” scores.

None of these subcompacts earned a “good” mark.

The vehicles were the worst-performing group of any evaluated so far by the institute, which spends about $3 million a year crashing cars and evaluating the results for the insurance industry. The tests are important because they play into safety ratings, car reviews and consumer perceptions, said Karl Brauer, an analyst with auto information company Kelley Blue Book.

Consumer Reports, for instance, dumped some of its favorite vehicles — including Toyota’s Camry, RAV4 and Prius V — from its list of recommended cars last year because the vehicles scored poorly in the test. The influential magazine put the Camry back on its recommended list in December after Toyota modified the car’s structure to earn an “acceptable” rating.

“Crash tests are one of those things that a dedicated minority of buyers look at,” Brauer said. “They won’t even consider a car unless they are sure the crash-test scores are good.”

Toyota has typically scored more poorly than companies such as Honda and Volvo in the tests, Brauer said.

“We are looking at a range of solutions to achieve greater crash performance in this area,” Toyota spokesman Michael Kroll said. “This is a more stringent test, and we will adapt. In fact, we moved very quickly with Camry to make changes that resulted in an improved score.”

The insurance group established the “small overlap front crash test” because front-corner collisions can be particularly severe.

The institute said the test is more difficult than the head-on crashes conducted by the government, or even other assessments by the institute, because most of the vehicle’s front-end crush zone is bypassed and the passenger compartment can collapse, the group said.

“Small, lightweight vehicles have an inherent safety disadvantage. That’s why it’s even more important to choose one with the best occupant protection,” said Joe Nolan, the institute’s senior vice president for vehicle research. “Unfortunately, as a group, minicars aren’t performing as well as other vehicle categories in the small overlap crash.”