The Chevrolet Spark got the top safety award.(Insurance Institute for Highway Safety)
The Chevrolet Spark got the top safety award. (Insurance Institute for Highway Safety)

While it isn’t always so, it figures that a big, brawny vehicle is a safer ride than something that looks more like a gum drop on four wheels. So the research by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety released this week is less than shocking.

In what they call the “minicar” category, only one of 11 tiny cars tested was rated acceptable in what’s called an overlap front crash test. Those crashes might be defined as almost a head-on, but the impact is absorbed primarily by the front chunk of the vehicle to one side or the other of the engine. Think more fender than front grille. Without the engine to absorb some of the force, an overlap crash is more likely to cause the passenger compartment to collapse. In the test, 25 percent of a vehicle’s front end on the driver’s side strikes a rigid barrier at 40 mph.

The IIHS said minicars were the worst category of cars they’ve tested.

“Small, lightweight vehicles have an inherent safety disadvantage. That’s why it’s even more important to choose one with the best occupant protection,” says Joe Nolan, IIHS senior vice president for vehicle research. “Unfortunately, as a group, minicars aren’t performing as well as other vehicle categories in the small overlap crash.”

The Chevrolet Spark was the only one that rated acceptable. The others tested were Mazda 2, Kia Rio, Toyota Yaris, Ford Fiesta, Mitsubishi Mirage, Nissan Versa sedan, Toyota Prius c, Hyundai Accent,  Fiat 500   and Honda Fit.

Seven of the 11 lost points because they allowed too much occupant forward motion in a crash. Either the seat belt didn’t hold the crash test dummy in place, or the dummy’s head missed or slid off the front  airbag. Side-curtain airbags, which play an important role in overlap frontal crashes, didn’t give enough forward coverage in eight of the minicars and didn’t deploy at all in the Toyota Yaris.

The IIHS said the two worst performers were the Honda Fit and the Fiat 500. Structure displaced on impact intruded into the driver’s space, and the steering column was pushed back toward the driver. In the Honda Fit, the dummy’s head barely contacted the frontal airbag before sliding off and hitting the instrument panel. The driver door tore off the hinges in the Fiat, creating a risk that the driver could be ejected.

Injury measures on the dummy’s left legs are marginal or poor for many models. In most cases, potential injuries involved the lower leg, but the Fit, 500 and Hyundai Accent were downgraded for left thigh or hip injury. The Fit and 500 were the only vehicles to record elevated injury risk to the right leg as well.