Surprise! Big Cars Beat Up Small Ones in Crash Tests


Last week, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety released some totally astounding findings. In its front-end crash tests—pitting a Mercedes C-class against a smart fortwo, a Honda Accord against a Fit, and a Toyota Camry against a Yaris (above)—guess what? The small cars got clobbered.

This exercise to benefit the insurance industry has as much validity as telling a group of environmentalists that carbon causes global warming. The real problem, of course, is that weight, size, and all the advanced safety features in new cars, big and small, ultimately work against the push for better fuel economy, as Todd Lassa wrote in the Motor Trend Blog. “I don’t know whether your average 2009 Peterbilt conventional has airbags, but I’d bet it’s safer than the ’89 and ’99 models.”

The logic of the IIHS tells us that we should have bigger, heavier, safer, and more fuel-efficient cars—which is clearly not where the industry and its customers are headed. The Institute recognizes the problem, but offers no realistic solution. And who’s going to buy all those neat small cars with gas still at $2 a gallon and oil prices continuing to fall?

One reason people buy smaller cars is to conserve fuel. Gasoline prices skyrocketed last year, and there’s no telling what the price at the pump might be next week. Meanwhile, the gears are turning to hike federal fuel economy requirements to address environmental concerns. The conflict is that smaller vehicles use less fuel but do a relatively poor job of protecting people in crashes, so fuel conservation policies have tended to conflict with motor vehicle safety policies.

However, the IIHS likes the new size-based CAFE standards proposed by the Obama administration, a kind of leveling approach to the problems of size, weight, and economy, which is, after all, one big compromise. And (hear the cheers break out), they endorse a return to the 55-mph speed limit on our nation’s highways.

Lassa remarks, “our highways would be safer if we removed anything smaller than a midsize car, and larger than a half-ton pickup, too. Buses and semis included.”

We surely could use some fresh thinking on this subject.

Do the results of these crash tests mean anything to you? Do you fear for your life when driving small cars?



  1. No. I definitely don’t fear for my life driving a Suzuki Alto. I don’t drive a small car because its fuel-smart and saves my bank balance from going bust. I drive them because they are easy to maneuver in city traffic.

  2. The collision shown is not a head-on collision, its a two-car version of the standard frontal offset barrier crash test that EVERYONE does. The test was developed to mimic typical frontal crashes, very few of which are true, head-on collisions. (The 2% you mention.) Because the FOB crash test data is only valid when two cars of the same weight collide, the IIHS ran this test series to publicize the extra risk that small vehicle owners accept with they drive on roads where most of the other vehicles are larger and heavier than theirs. Indeed, these test results are valid no matter what angle the larger vehicle hits the smaller vehicle– The smaller vehicle will absorb most of the force of the collision.

    What readers who own small cars should learn from these tests is that the safety features in their cars (including head and side air bags)are much less likely to protect them if they are hit by a larger vehicle. Therefore, they should drive much more defensively and should consider getting training to update their vehicle handling skills in emergency situations. The fact that our state driver licensing systems don’t require advanced driver training is one big reason why we spend billions of dollars and kill tens of thousands of Americans every year, and it’s unfortunate that groups like the IIHS don’t concentrate more in this area.

  3. The problem with the IIHS is that they are funded by insurance companies, so their tests aren’t exactly unbiased. It costs more for a consumer to insure a $40,000 car than it does to insure a $140,000 car, so it benefits them to say that small cars are unsafe, which is not entirely true.

    New compact cars are much safer than bigger heavier cars from a decade ago. Fifth gear rammed a Renault Modus (compact car) into a 1995 Volvo Wagon. The Renault held up extremely well, while the occupants of the Volvo would most likely/certainly have died from their injuries. Newer compacts are safer than older cars.

    Also, I think the statistic is that only about 2% of all accidents are head on collisions. The number is so little that the government and manufacturers don’t even both crashing testing the kind of crash the IIHS did.

    Here are some Fifth Gear videos of crash tests –

    The Volvo/Renault crash –

    Smart Fortwo into barrier –

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