The Chevy Spark bucked the trend with an acceptable overall rating, along with good marks in the IIHS's four other crashworthiness evaluations. (Insurance Institute for Highway Safety)
Washington— Nearly all of the smallest vehicles on U.S. roads failed to get passing marks on a tough new crash test from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.
The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, the Virginia-based group that prods automakers into building safer vehicles through its crash tests, said just one minicar out of 11 tested received an acceptable rating in the small-overlap front crash test. That makes minicars the poorest-performing group of any evaluated so far.
General Motors Co.’s Chevrolet Spark received an acceptable overall rating in the small-overlap test, along with good ratings in the IIHS’s four other crashworthiness evaluations, to win a Top Safety Pick award.
Introduced in 2012, the small-overlap test replicates what happens when the front corner of a vehicle collides with another vehicle or an object such as a tree or utility pole. In the test, 25 percent of a vehicle front end on the driver’s side strikes a rigid barrier at 40 mph.
“Small, lightweight vehicles have an inherent safety disadvantage. That’s why it’s even more important to choose one with the best occupant protection,” said Joe Nolan, IIHS senior vice president for vehicle research.
Every minicar, including the Spark, rated marginal or poor for structure.
In contrast to the minicar group’s performance, most models in the small-car category, which are a little larger, have done much better in the test. There are five good overall ratings and five acceptable ratings among 17 small cars that have been evaluated to date, the IIHS said.
GM said minicars present unique challenges when designing for crashworthiness. Spark’s short wheelbase of 93.5 inches required GM to strengthen the car’s front-end structure to better absorb and distribute impact energy around occupants, the automaker said. A cradle extension offers additional support in front collisions.
“Spark’s impressive performance in IIHS’s most stringent test yet demonstrates the intensive efforts of our global safety team to deliver big safety in a small package,” said Gay Kent, General Motors general director of Vehicle Safety and Crashworthiness. “Spark’s safety structure makes extensive use of high-strength and ultra-high-strength steels, and its robust passenger protection package includes 10 standard air bags.”
Lightweight, high-strength steel constitutes more than 62 percent of Spark’s underbody and 42 percent of its upper body. GM also said the Spark’s roof bow and B-pillar use high-strength steels to help in a rollover.
Ward’s Automotive says in the segment that covers nine of the 11 vehicles sales rose by 6 percent in 2013 to 618,000. Spark sales rose by 176 percent to 34,130 last year, but fell 23 percent last month.
In 2006, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration issued a report looking at fatality rates by vehicle types for 2004 models and found compact cars had the highest occupant fatality rate per 100,000 vehicles registered (17.76), followed by compact pickups (16.87) and subcompact cars (16.85).
IIHS told NHTSA in a 2011 presentation that while all vehicles are getting much better at protecting occupants, larger cars still are generally safer. “Occupants of the smallest and/or lightest vehicles still have death rates about twice as high as occupants of the largest and/or heaviest vehicles,” IIHS President Adrian Lund said in a presentation. “Large cars still will have fatality rates half as large as smaller cars.”
IIHS said the worst performers were the Honda Fit and the Fiat 500. “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 air bag 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.”
All vehicles except the Spark and the Mazda 2 earned low ratings for restraints. Seven of the 11 were downgraded for allowing too much forward motion by the dummy during the crash.
IIHS noted that the Spark, while offering more small overlap protection than other minicars, still weighs less than 2,500 pounds — from 500 to 1,500 pounds less than many cars on the road — “and doesn’t protect as well as a larger and heavier vehicle with a comparable rating.”