Staying Safe and Saving Money: New Tests Show Small, Fuel-Efficient Cars Getting Safer

However, larger cars still perform and protect better.

May 26, 2011 -- Findings released this week from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety found that, across the board, small, fuel-efficient cars are getting safer.

Six of 13 small cars the industry group tested won the Top Safety Pick award, and none earned a "poor" rating in any of four tests.

The top picks include the 2012 Ford Focus and Honda Civic, and the 2011 Hyundai Elantra, Lexus CT 200h hybrid, Nissan Juke and Toyota Prius.

This year's findings are a marked turnaround from just a few years ago when similar tests from the Virginia industry-funded group delivered frightening displays of crash test dummies slamming into windshields, and air bags deploying too late.

In 2006, only three small cars earned the Top Pick designation - the Honda Civic, Saab 9-2X and Subaru Impreza.

David Zuby, the institute's chief research officer, points to the Hyundai Elantra as a specific example of how far vehicle design in smaller cars has come in a short time.

In 2001, the Hyundai Elantra was at the bottom of the list when it came to frontal-crash protection. Five years later, by 2006, the car was still performing poorly, earning the lowest score in the side crash test, even with side air bags added.

Fast forward to this year when the newly released 2011 Elantra came out on top in every one of the institute's tests.

"We hope that this makes a difference to people who are shopping in the market for smaller cars," Zuby said.

Small, Safe and Fuel-Efficient Too

The findings are likely to not only have an impact on what cars consumers choose but also on how automakers market their small-size vehicles.

For years, automakers have been pitching better gas mileage in their bids to lure consumers to smaller cars, but now they can add safety.

And that will undoubtedly be a pitch well-received by consumers, who say that despite the tough economy and rising gas prices, they remain unwilling to forgo safety on the road for savings at the pump.

A new survey from Consumer Reports found consumers were willing to sacrifice when it came to purchase price, amenities and size to get better fuel efficiency but not when it came to safety.

The magazine said that when making a new car purchase, only 11 percent of consumers would make safety sacrifices for greater fuel economy.

Altogether, 10 small and minicar models with government fuel-economy ratings of at least 40 mpg on the highway also earned a Top Safety Pick designation from the IIHS.

The institute did offer a caveat, however, along with its encouraging findings.

For consumers who say safety is a top priority and not to be sacrificed, larger cars still perform, and protect, better.

"You can't negate the laws of physics," said Zuby.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.