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Status Report, Vol. 43, No. 11 | December 27, 2008 Subscribe

New small car crash test ratings

The Toyota Matrix rates good in the side test.

Most new small cars now earn good ratings in frontal crash tests but not when it comes to side and rear crashes. The Institute recently completed front, side, and rear tests of seven 2009 model small cars: Chevrolet HHR, Chrysler PT Cruiser, Ford Focus, Hyundai Elantra, Saturn Astra, Suzuki SX4, and Toyota Matrix. All earn the highest rating of good for occupant protection in frontal crashes. Only the SX4 and Matrix and its twin Pontiac Vibe also earn good ratings for protection in side crashes. Among seat/head restraints evaluated, only those in the Focus earn a good rating for protection in rear impacts. The Institute also tested the Mini Cooper, a minicar that earns good ratings for front and rear crashworthiness but not for side protection.

Eleven of the 21 current small car models the Institute has rated earn good ratings for side protection. "This is a huge improvement from our last comprehensive round of small car crashworthiness evaluations in 2006," says Institute senior vice president Joe Nolan. "Then, only 3 of the 19 tested earned a good rating in the side evaluation. Most earned a poor rating."

Small cars have grown especially popular as gasoline prices fluctuate and consumers become more conservation-minded. Nolan cautions that even though current models do a better job of protecting people in front, side, and rear crashes than earlier ones, small cars inherently afford less crash protection than bigger, heavier vehicles.

The Chrysler PT Cruiser is the only small car in the recent test series to earn poor marks in both side and rear evaluations. In the side test, measures recorded on the driver dummy indicate that in a real-world crash of similar severity, rib fractures and internal organ injuries would be likely, along with a possible pelvic fracture. The rear passenger dummy's head contacted the C-pillar during the test because this car doesn't have rear-seat side airbags. Measures recorded on the dummy indicate that serious neck injuries and a fractured pelvis would be possible in a crash of this severity. The PT Cruiser's seat/head restraints are the only ones the Institute tested this time around that earn the lowest rating of poor for occupant protection in rear crashes.

"The PT Cruiser doesn't offer the same level of crash protection as other small cars," Nolan says. "For consumers who want to drive a small car, there are many good alternatives to the PT Cruiser, including the six Top Safety Pick winners the Institute announced last month. There are lots of good choices, too, among midsize and large cars."

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