All other things being equal, occupants in a bigger, heavier vehicle are better protected than those in a smaller, lighter vehicle. Both size and weight affect the forces people inside a vehicle experience during a crash. The magnitude of those forces is directly related to the risk of injury.
In the case of size, the longer distance from the front of the vehicle to the occupant compartment gives a bigger vehicle an advantage in frontal crashes, which account for half of passenger vehicle occupant deaths. The longer that distance, the bigger the crush zone, and the lower the forces on the occupants.
Weight comes into play in a collision involving two vehicles. The bigger vehicle will push the lighter one backward during the impact. As a result, there will be less force on the occupants of the heavier vehicle and more on the people in the lighter vehicle. Heavier vehicles also fare better in some single-vehicle crashes because they are more likely to move, bend or deform objects they hit.
IIHS demonstrated the role of size and weight in a series of crash tests in 2009 in which a microcar and two minicars were each crashed into a midsize car from the same manufacturer. The Smart Fortwo, Honda Fit and Toyota Yaris all had good ratings in the Institute’s moderate overlap frontal test, but all three performed poorly in the crashes with midsize cars.