Arlington, Virginia – The U.S. Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) has tested 20 small car models to assess how well their bumpers would protect the vehicles from damage in low-speed collisions. The worst performers were the Hyundai Elantra, Toyota Prius and Volkswagen Rabbit, each sustaining about $4,000 (all prices U.S.) damage or more in a single test; the best was the Ford Focus, with about one-third that amount of damage in its worst test.

“Small cars are supposed to be economical, but there’s nothing economical about three or four thousand dollars in repairs after a low-speed collision,” said IIHS senior vice-president Joe Nolan. “Ford did the best job of putting bumpers on a small car that largely do what they’re supposed to do. In three of the four tests, the bumpers on the Focus protected sheet metal and most other expensive parts from damage.”

The IIHS conducted a series of four crash tests, with full front and rear into a barrier designed to mimic the front or back bumper on another vehicle, plus front and rear corner impacts. The full-width impacts were conducted at 6 mph (9.6 km/h), while the corner impacts were tested at 3 mph (4.8 km/h).

The Institute said that the purpose of a bumper is to absorb the energy of a low-speed collision and slow the vehicle before there is damage to more expensive parts such as fenders and hoods, but there are multiple problems, including bumpers that don’t line up vertically with other vehicles and so don’t engage at all, bumpers that do line up but don’t stay engaged, and bars under the bumper covers that are not big enough or are too flimsy to provide sufficient damage protection.

In the full-width test, the front bumper of the Focus sustained less than $600 damage, while the Elantra suffered nearly $5,000 worth of damage in the same test. The IIHS pointed out that this is equal to almost one-third of the car’s U.S. sale price.

“The Focus shows that decent bumpers don’t have to be heavy or costly,” Nolan said. “Many consumers are turning to small cars for better fuel economy, but damage in our tests approached luxury car territory. Savings at the pump could be more than offset by a single low-speed collision in one of these so-called economy cars.”

Underride is a frequent cause of significant damage in the tests, as in real-world crashes. The front bumpers of the Volkswagen Rabbit and Honda Civic underrode the barrier in the front full-width test, resulting in damage to the grille, hood, fender and air-conditioning condensors, while the Prius sustained nearly $4,000 damage in the rear full-width test because its bumper was too low to protect the tailgate, rear body panel and taillights.

Cost of parts was also a factor in the tests, with the front cover on the Toyota Scion (a brand not sold in Canada) less than $500 to replace and finish, half the price of that on the Mitsubishi Lancer, while a Prius taillight was $205 to the Focus’ $65 unit.

To illustrate the usefulness of small changes in bumper design, the IIHS worked with Tech-Cor, the research division of Allstate Insurance, to modify the front bumper of the Prius to extend the reinforcement bar and foam absorber by 10 inches (25.4 cm) on the passenger side under the headlight; when tested again, the headlight and fender were undamaged, and the repair dropped from $1,200 to $254. Nolan said that there is sufficient room under the bumper covers of most cars to make the change.

With total damage from all four crash tests combined, the 20 cars tested were, in order of least to most expensive: Ford Focus ($3,031), Scion xB ($3,697), Scion xD ($4,135), Mazda3 ($4,859), Nissan Sentra ($4,908), Dodge Caliber ($5,322), Subaru Impreza ($5,693), Suzuki SX4 ($5,851), Saturn Astra ($5,898), Nissan Versa ($6,152), Mitsubishi Lancer ($6,378), Toyota Corolla ($6,805), Chevrolet Cobalt ($6,853), Honda Civic ($6,879), Chevrolet HHR ($7,417), Kia Spectra ($7,589), Chrysler PT Cruiser ($8,261), Hyundai Elantra ($8,976), Toyota Prius ($9,070) and Volkswagen Rabbit ($9,511).

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