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Crash testing goes badly for smallest cars

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, a testing and advocacy group funded by the U.S. auto insurance industry, said only one of eight small-car models it tested had performed well in three different simulated crash situations.

DETROIT–Subcompact cars put drivers and passengers at higher risk for serious injuries in collisions, according to independent crash tests released this week.

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, a testing and advocacy group funded by the U.S. auto insurance industry, said only one of eight small-car models it tested had performed well in three different simulated crash situations.

The Nissan Versa, which has standard side airbags and was the largest of the eight “minicars” tested by the IIHS, was the only model to achieve the highest ratings in simulated front, side and rear crashes.

The 2007 Toyota Yaris with optional side airbags and the 2007 Honda Fit – which has standard side airbags – also got top marks in frontal and side-impact tests.

But four vehicles received the lowest rating of poor in side-impact protection: versions of the 2007 Yaris without side airbags, the 2006 (Toyota) Scion xB, and 2007 models of the Hyundai Accent and the Kia Rio, which share similar underpinnings.

Minicars were defined as those weighing about 1,100 kg or less. A typical midsize car weighs about 350 kg more.

The IIHS performs more stringent crash tests than federal safety regulators and its findings tend to be closely followed by consumer groups.

Adrian Lund, president of the IIHS, said the smallest cars on U.S. roads tend to be at greater risk in collisions involving bigger vehicles because “you can’t repeal the laws of physics.

“It’s like putting a featherweight in the ring with a heavyweight. The featherweight tends not to do well, and it’s the same for cars,” he said. “Their crashes are going to be more severe.”

During testing of the Scion xB, part of Toyota’s youth-oriented brand and which is not sold in Canada, the institute said the test barrier – designed to perform like the front-end of a pickup or SUV – struck the driver dummy’s head, which would have likely caused brain and neck injuries. Side airbags are unavailable on the xB and are a $650 (U.S.) option on the Yaris.

Bill Kwong, a Toyota spokesman, said “we feel our vehicles perform really well in the real-world situation.”

However, the Japanese automaker also said it would provide standard side curtain airbags by 2009 on all of its vehicles.

The institute also cited the Hyundai Accent, which has standard curtain-style airbag s in the front and rear seats. While the airbags “provided good head protection,” it said the driver dummy withstood impacts that would have led to internal organ injuries, broken ribs and a fractured pelvis.

Miles Johnson, a Hyundai spokesman, noted the vehicle has performed well in the government’s tests.

The institute said it conducted two frontal tests for the Honda Fit. The airbag deployed too early in the first test, allowing high forces on the dummy’s head. Honda spokesman Sage Marie said the company would contact customers about a voluntary safety campaign in early 2007 to modify the airbag’s software. In a second test, the Fit’s airbag deployed properly after Honda made the changes.

Among other vehicles, the 2007 Chevrolet Aveo with standard side airbags received the second-highest score of “acceptable” for frontal crash protection and the second-lowest mark of “marginal” for side-impact evaluation.

GM spokesman Alan Adler said the Aveo “meets or exceeds safety standards in more than 120 countries in which it is sold.”

The 2006 Mini Cooper was rated good on frontal evaluation and acceptable on the side. The newly redesigned 2007 version is expected in showrooms in the end of February.

Although all of the cars tested were rated “good” or “acceptable” in frontal crashes at 65 km/h, none of the cars except the Versa achieved a similar rating in a test intended to simulate a crash from the rear at 32 km/h.

Lund said that finding is significant because claims for neck and back sprains represent about half of the insurance industry’s losses from automobile accidents.

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