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Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Micro/Mini Cars - Are They Safe?

The shock of $4.00 gas prices last summer and the state of the economy has a lot of new car buyers looking at the so called micro or mini cars such as the Mercedes Smart Car, Toyota Yaris and the Honda Fit as a way to save on gas during long commutes. Long available in Europe, the popularity of these cars in the US is growing with more and more of them appearing on America's roads. While very fuel efficient, it appears that the micro cars may not be safe enough for American-style traffic and driving conditions.

Recently, the Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) conducted crash tests on the Smart Car, the Yaris and the Fit. Instead of testing them against large trucks or SUVs, the IIHS chose to test their crash worthiness by crashing them at 40 mph into a mid-sized sedan made by the same manufacturer. The test results showed that the micro cars performed poorly in protecting the vehicle occupants in a crash.

In a crash with a Honda Accord against the Fit, injuries to the test dummies indicated that there was a high probability of major injury to both legs. The dummy's head also went through the airbag, striking the steering column. Intrusion into the passenger compartment rated this vehicle a poor rating.

The testers crashed the Toyota Yaris against a Camry. While the Camry performed well, the Yaris suffered significant intrusion into the passenger compartment and the door was almost torn off. The dummy’s head struck the steering wheel through the airbag and there was evidence of extensive injury to the neck and legs.

In a crash against a Mercedes C class, the Smart Fortwo went airborne and spun 450 degrees, leading to possible multiple injuries due to rebound. There was significant intrusion and both the dashboard and steering wheel were displaced and moved upward toward the dummy. There were measures of multiple injuries to the head and legs of the dummy.

While the mid-sized counterparts all fared in the acceptable range, all three of the micro cars were rated as poor. The physics involved in a crash like this are relatively easy for anyone to understand. The larger and faster an object is, the more damage it will impart on a smaller, lighter object.

Micro cars have been around a long time in Europe and their popularity there is a result of the different driving styles between Europe and the US. In Europe, there are fewer cars on the road, with people depending instead on the excellent public transportation systems available there. Most cars in Europe also tend to be smaller, leveling the playing field in crashes between vehicles. Europeans also tend to live in cities and, on average, have much shorter commuting distances than their American cousins who tend to live far out in the suburbs and depend on high speed limited access highways for their daily commute. Fewer miles traveled at slower speeds leads to fewer and less severe crashes.

While these vehicles may contain all the latest safety options such as electric stability control, air bags and improved seat belts, they are still at greater risk due to their light construction and less room between the driver and the front of the vehicle in a crash. Advocates say that more of these vehicles would lead to fewer injuries as larger cars are removed from the road. However, almost half of the deaths in these types of cars were in single vehicle crashes off the road or against a barrier and their light construction does little to protect vehicle occupants in this type of crash.

If you want to save money on gas and especially if you are purchasing a car for a teen or college bound child, there are vehicles available that get reasonably good mileage while offering better protection to the vehicle occupants. You can view videos of the crash tests performed on the micro vehicles and, if you are shopping for a particular car, you can search for crash worthiness results by vehicle year, model, or size at the Insurance Institute of Highway Safety's web site.

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