Arlington, Virginia – New crash tests of small cars by the U.S. Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) have found that most earn “good” ratings in frontal crash tests, but not when it comes to side and rear crashes.

The IIHS recently completed front, side and rear tests of seven 2009 model-year small cars: the Chevrolet HHR, Chrysler PT Cruiser, Ford Focus, Hyundai Elantra, Saturn Astra, Suzuki SX4, and Toyota Matrix. All earned the highest rating of “good” for occupant protection in frontal crashes, but only the SX4, and the Toyota Matrix and its twin Pontiac Vibe, also earned “good” ratings for protection in side crashes. Among seat/head restraints evaluated, only those in the Focus earned “good” ratings for protection in rear crashes. The IIHS also tested the Mini Cooper, which earned “good” ratings for front and rear crashworthiness, but not for side protection.

“Automakers have made big improvements to better protect people in frontal crashes,” said Joe Nolan, IIHS senior vice-president. “They’ve also added stronger structures and standard head-protecting side airbags to help in side crashes, which are tougher on smaller, lighter cars.” Nolan noted that 11 of the 21 current small car models tested by the IIHS have rated “good” for side protection. “This is a huge improvement from our last comprehensive round of small car crashworthiness evaluations in 2006,” he said. “Then, only three of the 19 tested earned a ‘good’ rating in the side evaluation. Most earned a ‘poor’ rating.”

The side test is especially challenging for small cars, because the barrier that strikes them represents the front end of a pickup truck or SUV. Side airbags designed for head protection are crucial, because the barrier crashes at the head level of the two dummies positioned in the driver’s seat and in the rear seat directly behind. “Side airbags were mostly optional in the 2006 round of small car tests,” Nolan said. “A major change is that side airbags are standard in all of the seven small cars we tested this time around.”

Nolan said that even though current models do a better job of protecting people in crashes than earlier ones, small cars inherently afford less crash protection than bigger, heavier vehicles, but they have grown especially popular due to fluctuating gasoline prices and conservation-minded consumers. “There’s no escaping the laws of physics,” he said. “People in larger, heavier cars fare better in crashes with other vehicles, and in single-vehicle crashes, than people in smaller ones.”

The PT Cruiser is the only small car in the recent tests to earn “poor” marks in both side and rear evaluations. The seat/head restraint combinations for occupant protection in rear crashes in the Chevrolet HHR and Suzuki SX4 earned the next-lowest rating of “marginal”, although the PT Cruiser still has the worst seat/head restraint rating of the larger group of 21 current small car models the IIHS has rated.

Among the small cars in this round of tests, only the Chevrolet HHR and Pontiac Vibe have standard electronic stability control. It is not available on the PT Cruiser and optional on the rest, including the Vibe’s twin Toyota Matrix.

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