Product Liability

Are you safe in a minicar?

The words “fuel economy” pack more appeal for American car buyers than any other time in automotive history. Motivated by financial strains to cut costs and inspired by the Green Revolution to reduce fuel consumption, millions of Americans are turning to smaller and smaller car models. But are mini and micro size cars, which are so common on European streets, safe for people to use on American roads and interstates?

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) recently completed testing the smallest cars on the American market. Every year, the non-profit IIHS crash tests and thoroughly evaluates a number of car models in a spectrum of classes, awarding its Top Safety Pick to the best performers. Ratings along the IIHS safety scale run from Good and Acceptable to Marginal and Poor. The rankings are widely recognized as the leading authority in determining how safe the cars and trucks on America’s roads are.

Because an IIHS Top Safety Pick is a designation coveted by most automobile manufacturers, the rating is extremely influential both in guiding consumer choices and improving car industry safety features.

This year, the IIHS ran seven mini models through the wringer, testing for roof strength and  bumpers to round out last year’s frontal, side and rear crash tests. Cars tested in the mini and micro class were the Chevrolet Aveo, Honda Fit, Hyundai Accent, Kia Rio, Mini Cooper, Smart Fortwo and Toyota Yaris.

According to the IIHS, most people who drive a one of these cars would be fairly (but far from ideally) safe in a vehicular rollover. None of the cars received a poor roof crush rating, but not necessarily because they have stronger roof frames. Their small body size and light weight translate to less pressure on the roof when overturned. Only the Smart Fortwo received the highest rating of Good. The Honda Fit, Hyundai Accent, Kia Rio, Mini Cooper, and Toyota Yaris received Acceptable rankings. The Chevrolet Aveo received the lowest rankings of its class with a Marginal.

The cars generally performed better on frontal crash tests. The IIHS gave a Good ranking to the Fit, Mini, Smart, and Yaris, while the Aveo, Accent, and Rio received Acceptable.

In the side crash tests, the Fit, Smart, and Yaris received a Good ranking. The Mini received an Acceptable and the Aveo squeaked by with a lackluster Marginal, but the Accent and Rio ranked Poor.

The rear crash test results, which measure how the car design can protect occupants from injuries in low-speed, rear-end collisions, came in worse all around. Only the Mini and the Fit were ranked Good. The Smart ranked Acceptable. The Yaris ranked Marginal and the Aveo, Accent, and Rio performed Poorly.

Bumper tests, which measure damage in dollar terms rather than personal injury, had dismal results. The Smart received an Acceptable and the Aveo a Marginal. The remaining cars received a Poor ranking.

The most important test, however, showed how minicars stack up against slightly larger cars in tests replicating a head-on collision. In a more ideal world, minicars would only crash with other minicars, but that isn’t the reality on American roads today. The IIHS ranked each of the cars for frontal impact by crashing them into vehicles of the same size. However, when crashed against mid-size cars, all of the vehicles received a ranking of Poor. Needless to say, the IIHS didn’t have to crash these little cars against full-size cars and trucks to know they and their passengers would not fare well.