Subcompacts face difficulty with crash test

Minicars may get better gas mileage than their larger counterparts, but some models appear to have difficulty passing a special Insurance Institute for Highway Safety crash test.

Insurance Institute for Highway Safety/AP
This undated photo provided by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety shows the Chevrolet Spark during a crash test. The Spark is the only minicar tested to earn an acceptable rating in the small overlap front test.

Minicars are big business nowadays. That's often because they earn good gas mileage -- nothing to sneeze at, given today's increasingly higher fuel prices. They're also easy to maneuver and park, which is a nice bonus for urban dwellers.

What most minicars don't do well, however, is protect their occupants -- at least, not in the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety's small overlap crash test. In fact, of the 11 minicars that the IIHS recently tested, only one managed to pass that test with an "acceptable" rating.

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The small overlap test debuted in 2012. As you might guess from the name, it examines collisions that affect a small portion of a vehicle's front end -- specifically, the 25 percent of the front end on the driver's side. As the IIHS explains, "The test is more difficult than the head-on crashes conducted by the government or the longstanding IIHS moderate overlap test because most of the vehicle's front-end crush zone is bypassed. That makes it hard for the vehicle to manage crash energy, and the occupant compartment can collapse as a result."

As challenging as it may be, the small overlap test wasn't designed simply to stump car designers. It's exactly the sort of collision drivers experience when hitting trees, telephone poles, or other objects. In other words, it emulates some very common, very real-world conditions.

The lucky winner in the minicar segment was the Chevrolet Spark. Its passing grade in the small overlap test, combined with "good" ratings in the four other IIHS tests, qualified the Spark for "Top Safety Pick" status. Faring less-well were the Mazda2, Kia Rio, Toyota Yaris, 2014 Ford Fiesta, 2014 Mitsubishi Mirage, Nissan Versa Sedan, Toyota Prius c, and Hyundai Accent. Many of those models had serious problems with restraining occupants and with allowing damage to the lower legs and feet.

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At the bottom of the IIHS barrel were the Fiat 500 and the Honda Fit. According to the IIHS, "In both cases, intruding structure seriously compromised the driver's space, and the steering column was pushed back toward the driver. In the case of the Fit, the dummy's head barely contacted the frontal airbag before sliding off and hitting the instrument panel. During the test of the 500, the driver door opened after the hinges tore. An open door creates a risk that the driver could be partially or completely ejected." Ouch.

That said, the Spark's designers shouldn't pat themselves too hard on the back -- not just yet, anyway. Like all the other minicars tested, the Spark lacked any kind of front-crash prevention system, such as collision avoidance sensors or automated braking. To earn the IIHS' highest safety rating, "Top Safety Pick+", it'll need to add such a system to its list of features.

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