March 7, 2005

14 of 16 small cars rated ‘poor’ in side impact crash tests

Arlington, Virginia – Most small car designs earned poor ratings in side impact crash tests recently conducted by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. Only the Chevrolet Cobalt and Toyota Corolla, both equipped with optional side airbags with head protection, performed well enough to earn the Institute’s second highest rating of acceptable. Without the optional airbags, the Cobalt and Corolla are rated poor for side impact protection.

Another 12 small cars also earned poor ratings: Dodge Neon, Ford Focus, Hyundai Elantra, Kia Spectra, Mazda 3, Mitsubishi Lancer, Nissan Sentra, Saturn ION (tested with and without side airbags), Suzuki Forenza, Suzuki Aerio, and Volkswagen New Beetle.

Three more small cars will be tested in side impacts later this year. The Mini Cooper and Subaru Impreza will have new design features that are intended to improve side impact protection. The Honda Civic will be a completely redesigned model.

“These side impact results are similar to the results in 1997 when the Institute first rated small cars in the frontal offset crash test,” says Institute chief operating officer Adrian Lund. “Back then, no small car earned a good frontal crash test rating. Now almost every small car earns a good rating in the frontal test. As manufacturers redesign their vehicles, we expect that small cars will get better in the side impact test too.”

In the Institute’s side impact test, a moving deformable barrier strikes the driver side of a passenger vehicle at 31 mph. The barrier weighs 3,300 pounds and has a front end that is shaped to simulate the front end of a typical pickup or SUV. In each side-struck vehicle are two instrumented dummies the size of a small (5th percentile) woman, one positioned in the driver seat and one in the rear seat behind the driver.

Four of the vehicles that earned poor side crashworthiness ratings (Elantra, Forenza, New Beetle, and Spectra) are equipped with standard side airbags with head protection. These cars are rated good or acceptable for head injury measures recorded on the driver dummies. The Saturn ION with optional side airbags also earned an acceptable rating for driver head injury. However, the structures of all of these vehicles allowed too much intrusion during the test. Forces recorded on the driver dummies’ torsos and/or pelvic areas were high.

“Side airbags can protect the head, but if the vehicle structure doesn’t hold up well then serious injuries to other body regions still can occur,” Lund points out. “With better structures along with the side airbags, the performances of these vehicles would improve.”

In the Institute’s frontal offset test, the Cobalt and Corolla are rated good and “best picks.” The Cobalt’s seat/head restraints are rated good based on a test that simulates a rear impact, and the Corolla’s are poor. Taken together with ratings in the side impact test, the Cobalt and Corolla equipped with optional side airbags now are the highest rated small cars overall in the Institute’s crashworthiness ratings.

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