Side Impacts Troublesome for Small Cars, IIHS Says

Only two small cars received good safety ratings in new testing conducted by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

iihs test on 2022 kia forte
  • Side-impact crashes are especially deadly, and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety wants to change that.
  • Putting various body styles through its updated side crash test, the IIHS reports that many small sedans and hatchbacks struggled to achieve a good rating.
  • The Mazda3 sedan and hatchback received good ratings, while Honda's Civic, Nissan's Sentra, and Toyota's Corolla received acceptable grades, and Kia's Forte (pictured above) and Subaru's Impreza received poor marks.

    Safety technology within the automotive industry has progressed significantly in the 21st century, with advanced driver-assistance systems becoming standard equipment. Adding these layers of driver redundancy aims to avoid crashes altogether, but driver aids have their limits and the frequency of traffic crashes has skyrocketed in recent years. When collisions occur, the structure of the vehicle itself can be the difference between serious injury or walking away with a few scratches.

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    The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety has introduced a new crash test to its safety rating regiment. Nearly a quarter of passenger vehicle occupant fatalities can be traced to severe side impacts, and the IIHS recently updated that test to reflect reality, with a 4,200-pound barrier striking the side of test cars at 37 mph. The results for small cars are concerning.

    Of the 11 models tested, only the Mazda 3 hatchback and sedan received the highest mark of good, with an acceptable level of safety cage damage and a minimal level of injury to the driver's torso and pelvis. The Honda Civic, Nissan Sentra, and Toyota Corolla all received acceptable ratings, which is a bump down from good in IIHS terms, and showed weakness in driver pelvis protection. It's worth noting that all of these models received an acceptable rating in the structure and safety cage category—a stark contrast from the good ratings seen on many midsize crossovers.

    mazda 3
    Mazda’s legacy hatchback had a strong safety cage and returned results with only a low chance of most injuries.

    Four of the 11 models tested received poor overall ratings due to inadequate safety cage construction and significant injury risk to drivers. Kia's Forte performed the worst, with a marginal safety cage rating and poor protection of the driver's torso and pelvis, while Subaru's Impreza and XV Crosstrek family displayed poor structure safety across the board.

    Four of 11 models tested received poor overall ratings due to inadequate safety cage construction.

    Specifically, the Forte's crash test resulted in a window sill head impact through the airbag, adding to the high risk of head injury. Subaru's crash test also indicated a window sill head impact and a cabin intrusion of the B-pillar.

    Across the board, small sedans and hatchbacks performed poorly as compared to their midsize crossover counterparts but fared similarly to small crossover and midsize sedan counterparts.

    The IIHS says a higher ride height leads to better performance in the new evaluation, due to the impact being centered closer to the floor as opposed to the door. But this doesn't mean these small sedans and hatchbacks are inherently unsafe.

    crash dummies in iihs test
    Due to the low ride height of these small cars, the updated test impact usually strikes the door, replicating an impact from a larger vehicle.

    "It’s encouraging to see so many small cars with passing grades in this new side test," said IIHS Senior Research Engineer Becky Mueller, who led development of the new evaluation. "Smaller, lower vehicles are at a disadvantage when struck by the new test barrier, which is a more realistic representation of the front end of a typical modern SUV than our old barrier."

    Even so, it's clear that a number of manufacturers have figured out how to provide sufficient structural rigidity and crash protection with less material. Additionally, all of these models received a good rating in the current side-impact test.

    This updated test is not an official test criterion for 2022 model year units, but the institute says it will be standard practice next year. As the IIHS continues to update safety standards, manufacturers will face pressure to meet these benchmarks, given that IIHS ratings are a significant marker for safety-conscious car buyers.

    Do concerns about side impacts affect your vehicle shopping, especially if you're considering a small car? Please comment below.

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