When it comes to vehicular safety, size matters -- a lot, according to a recent crash test.
"It's physics," Insurance Institute for Highway Safety president Adrian Lund said. "It's a law that with the weight and size advantage of the larger cars, they're always going to have a safety advantage in crashes."
In each of the tests, the large-model vehicle did best, although manufacturers argue that the tests are conducted at speeds that drivers are unlikely to reach in actual crashes.
Still, the report noted that the results are an indication of the relative safety of people riding in small cars as opposed to larger cars. It said the people riding in the smaller car would be at a disadvantage because the smaller car would be pushed backward by the larger vehicle during impact.
Indeed, the death rate for people in mini cars involved in crashes was almost twice that of people in large cars in 2007, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation.
Mini vs. Midsize
The miniature Honda Fit was pitted against the midsize Accord, while the Toyota Yaris went up against the Camry in the institute's crash tests.
In both cases, the smaller cars suffered much more damage than their midsize counterparts. The Toyota Camry actually intruded far into the Yaris' passenger compartment.
The institute said that was because smaller vehicles do not have a long hood to cushion the blow.
The standard also held true even for luxury-brand cars.
The Smart Fortwo hybrid vehicle, made by Mercedes, went airborne when crashed into the heavier Mercedes C Class. The heavier car always strikes the lighter one with more force, according to the institute.
Mini Gets Passing Grade
Despite they're enduring more damage than the larger cars, all three mini cars tested by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety passed every government crash test.
All three did well in the institute's frontal offset barrier test, but all three did poorly in frontal collisions with midsize cars.
The tests illustrated one major point, however. "When it comes to cars, size matters," Lund said.
The cars' manufacturers said the institute's head-on tests are unfair, because they are conducted at speeds that exceed the vast majority of real-world crashes. But the institute said it has been conducting similar tests for years.
"The unusual and extreme conditions produced by this test highlight the issue of compatibility between vehicles, albeit at higher speeds than most actual, vehicle-to-vehicle crashes. Honda conducts extensive research on vehicle-to-vehicle and other types of crashes at our state-of-the-art crash test facilities in Tochigi, Japan, and in Ohio, with industry-leading capabilities for the study of car-to-car crashes.
"Honda's Advanced Compatibility Engineering body structure is a result of this research, and specifically addresses frontal crash compatibility between vehicles of different size and ride heights while helping to absorb the energy of a frontal crash by channeling energy through both the upper and lower structural elements. Our Ace body structure has helped all 2009 Honda vehicles achieve Good IIHS ratings and five-star NHTSA NCAP frontal crash ratings (except the S2000).
"At Honda, safety is a top priority. All Honda vehicles undergo rigorous development and testing to help achieve high levels of occupant protection. At the same time, we strive continuously to improve the safety of all our products."
The statement continued: "The IIHS test is equivalent to an 80 mph closing speed, with an equivalent speed/energy higher than 99.9 percent of all real world crashes. Attempting to countermeasure crashes in these very high ranges can actually cause unintended consequences and trade-offs in occupant protection, in crash test ranges more representative of real-world crashes.
"The real question for a 'comprehensive safety assessment' is how well the vehicle's safety systems perform in the limitless variety of real-world accidents. According to National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) data, less than 0.06 percent of all frontal crashes occur at the crash severity selected by the IIHS.
"The coexistence of large and small vehicles and the safety implications when the two are in a collision has been discussed for several years.
"According to NHTSA, vehicle safety in all car classes continues to improve, in part due to the active and passive safety features developed by the automotive industry."
Smart USA's Statement
Smart USA Distributor LLC (www.smartusa.com) is the exclusive distributor of the Smart Fortwo in the United States and Puerto Rico. The president of Smart USA, Dave Schembri, has issued the following statement related to the Insurance Institute's test:
"This nonstandard crash test performed by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) simulates a crash situation that is rare and extreme. The test used an extremely high crash severity which is unlikely to occur in real world crashes. In fact, less than 1 percent of all crashes fall within these parameters.
"The test conducted by the IIHS was not consistent with how federal regulators evaluate vehicles in crash tests. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration requires that cars and trucks of all sizes meet stringent safety requirements.
"The Smart Fortwo meets or exceeds all U.S. government crash test standards, including a five-star side crash rating, and previously earned the highest scores for front- and side-crash worthiness from the IIHS in its standard test. The Smart Fortwo is equipped with advanced crash avoidance and crash protection safety systems, including electronic stability program (esp), and a reinforced steel safety cage called a tridion safety cell, which is standard equipment on all models.
"For the past decade, Smart has a proven track record of safety with approximately 1 million cars on the road in 37 countries. People drive small cars for many reasons, not just fuel economy, as the IIHS states. People choose small vehicles because they are generally more environmentally friendly, a great value, they provide for greater driving and parking options in congested urban areas and many consumers tell us they are simply more fun to drive."