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US safety watchdog slams mini-cars

Controversial North American safety test catches out a batch of mini-cars

General News logo24 Jan 2014

NORTH American road safety watchdog the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) has put 11 micro-sized city cars through their paces against its controversial ‘small overlap’ front crash test, with damning results.

Only the Chevrolet Spark, which is sold in Australia as the Holden Barina Spark, managed an Acceptable rating, with the remaining ten cars – many of which have five-star Euro NCAP and ANCAP ratings – achieving Marginal or Poor status.

The frontal small overlap test was introduced with some controversy in 2012, when it showed up flaws in some otherwise five-star crash safety performers including luxury models from the likes of Audi, BMW, Mercedes-Benz and Lexus.

Unlike a full-frontal collision, the test requires 25 per cent of a vehicle’s front end on the driver’s side to strike a rigid barrier at 64km/h. It is designed to replicate a crash where two cars collide at a very narrow angle, similar to a car straying in front of oncoming traffic, attempting to avoid a head-on crash, or hitting a pole.

This test is considered more difficult than other frontal collisions because it bypasses the front-end ‘crush zone’, making it harder for the car’s design to deviate crash energy around the passenger cell.

The IIHS is the US equivalent of Euro NCAP or Australia’s version, the Australasian New Car Assessment Program (ANCAP).

All of the 11 cars tested are available in Australia. Those that scored a Marginal rating include the Mazda2, Kia Rio, Toyota Yaris and Ford Fiesta. The Mitsubishi Mirage, Nissan Versa (sold here as the Almera), Toyota Prius C, Hyundai Accent, Fiat 500 and Honda Fit (nee Jazz) scored Poor ratings.

The testing found that all entrants, including the Spark, rated either Marginal or Poor in the category that measures the strength of the vehicles overall structure. Collapsing structures can knock frontal airbags and seats out of position.

All vehicles tested with the exceptions of the Spark and Mazda2 scored either Marginal or Poor for restrains and kinematics, either for allowing too much forward motion to the test dummy during a crash, or causing the dummy’s head to miss or slip off the driver or curtain airbag.

The Yaris’ curtain airbag failed to deploy at all, while many of the cars’ steering columns moved sideways. The two worst performers, the Honda Fit/Jazz and Fiat 500, had a crushed structure that “seriously compromised” the driver’s space.

Interestingly, both the Fit/Jazz and the 500 were awarded five Euro NCAP stars for occupant protection.

The IIHS said the results were in contrast to the what the organisation found when it tested the small-car category, comprised of vehicles one-segment larger than those tested here. Of the 17 small-cars tested, five scored Good ratings and five scored Acceptable ratings.

“Small, lightweight vehicles have an inherent safety disadvantage. That's why it's even more important to choose one with the best occupant protection,” said IIHS senior vice president for vehicle research Joe Nolan.

“Unfortunately, as a group, minicars aren't performing as well as other vehicle categories in the small overlap crash.”

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