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The Chev Cobalt (above) is on the NHTSA's Top Pick list, along with the Toyota Corolla, Volkswagen New Beetle, Suzuki Aerio, Mitsubishi Lancer, Mazda 3, Subaru Impreza, Mini Cooper, Honda Civic and Volkswagen Jetta.
Which inexpensive 2005-06 models are safest?
By Bill Roebuck
It's typical, when you want a vehicle with the best safety ratings, to choose something that's big -- and probably pricey. Big trucks and SUVs traditionally fare better in accidents because of their size and weight. And expensive cars typically include critical safety options as standard equipment.
That situation is changing rapidly, though, as many economical 2005 and 2006 compacts and subcompacts boast a wealth of safety features to protect their occupants. A safe car is no longer the domain of the well-heeled driver.
Safety is especially significant for small cars, as they have more than twice as many occupant deaths each year as large cars. Even so, in Canada, compact models make up slightly over 42% of the market -- the largest segment overall. Subcompacts make up another 9%, so over half the cars sold in Canada are small.
Safety features are important in small cars for two main reasons. First, in a crash with larger, heavier vehicles, they tend to sustain more damage. Second, economical cars tend to be driven by younger drivers, whose limited experience involves them in more accidents.
All cars today offer seat belts -- many with belt pre-tensioners to snug you in at the start of a crash, head restraints and front driver and passenger air bags. Many also provide two-stage airbags that help reduce injuries to children or smaller passengers. A bonus you'll find increasingly is side air bags that protect the chest and abdomen, and even side-curtain air bags that protect the heads of both front and rear passengers
Other important safety features include knee bolsters so you won't slide under the dashboard, run-flat tires, tire air pressure monitors, and anti-lock brake systems (ABS) that automatically pump the brakes to allow fast stops while letting the driver retain control over steering.
Also becoming more common, even in entry-level models, are traction control to improve directional stability on slippery roads, stability control systems that gently apply the brakes and reduce engine power if you enter a corner too quickly, and tilt and telescoping steering wheels that help different sized driver get into a position where they can control their car effectively.
One example is the all-new 2006 Hyundai Sonata, which even on the $21,900 base model boasts ABS brakes; front, side and side head-curtain airbags; tilt and telescoping steering; power adjustable pedals; traction control and vehicle stability control.
All cars also have crumple zones intended to reduce the crash forces that enter the passenger compartment, although some work better than others, thus you see differing results from various manufacturers.
Crash test data are available from several sources, including the front, side and rear crash ratings of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), www.safercar.gov; and the offset frontal and side crash ratings of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), www.iihs.org. Both organizations are based in the United States.
So-called 'Best Picks' from NHTSA for 2005 models in the small car segment include the Chevrolet Cobalt, Toyota Corolla, Volkswagen New Beetle, Suzuki Aerio, Mitsubishi Lancer, Mazda 3, Subaru Impreza, Mini Cooper, Honda Civic and Volkswagen Jetta.
Recently, the 2005 Volkswagen Jetta earned good ratings in both frontal offset and side impact crash tests conducted by the IIHS. The Jetta is the first vehicle to earn the top rating of good in every individual measurement category (injury measures, head protection and structural design) of the Institute's side-impact test.
This car was designated a 'best pick' for side crash protection, and also is a good performer for frontal crash protection, IIHS reports.
"The new Jetta was the first vehicle to ace our side impact test," says Institute president Brian O'Neill. "It's the best performer among midsize inexpensive cars. Its structural performance was better than the second- and third-best models, the Toyota Camry and Honda Accord. This new Jetta design shows what manufacturers can do to improve occupant protection in serious side impacts when cars are hit by taller and heavier SUVs and pickup trucks."
However, most small car designs earned poor ratings in the IIHS' side impact crash tests. Only the Chevrolet Cobalt and Toyota Corolla, both equipped with optional side airbags with head protection, performed well enough to earn the Institute's second-highest rating of acceptable. Without the optional airbags, the Cobalt and Corolla are rated poor for side impact protection.
In the Institute's frontal offset test, the Cobalt and Corolla are rated good and 'best picks.' The Cobalt's seat/head restraints are rated good based on a test that simulates a rear impact, while the Corolla's are poor. Even so, taken together with ratings in the side impact test, the Cobalt and Corolla equipped with optional side airbags now are the highest-rated small cars overall in the Institute's crashworthiness ratings.
Another 12 small cars earned poor ratings: Dodge Neon, Ford Focus, Hyundai Elantra, Kia Spectra, Mazda 3, Mitsubishi Lancer, Nissan Sentra, Saturn Ion (tested with and without side airbags), Suzuki Forenza (not sold in Canada), Suzuki Aerio and Volkswagen New Beetle. (Note that some of these models earned Best Pick ratings in the NHTSA ratings due to the different methodology used.)
Four of the vehicles that earned poor side-crashworthiness ratings (Elantra, Forenza, New Beetle, and Spectra) are equipped with standard side airbags with head protection. These cars are rated good or acceptable for head injury measures recorded on the driver dummies. The Saturn Ion with optional side airbags also earned an acceptable rating for driver head injury. However, the structures of all of these vehicles allowed too much intrusion during the test.
Three more small cars will be tested in side impacts later this year. The Mini Cooper and Subaru Impreza will have new design features that are intended to improve side impact protection. The 2006 Honda Civic will be a completely redesigned model that will include standard side airbags, side curtain airbags, an anti-lock braking system with electronic brake distribution, and active head restraints.
Other new models for 2006 that are yet to be tested include the Kia Rio sedan and Rio5 five-door hatchback. The 2006 Rio features new styling, is larger and more powerful than its predecessor. Standard safety equipment has also been increased, including six airbags with full-length side-curtain airbags.
No matter what car you choose, two things can help all drivers be safer on the road. Advanced driver training programs will make you a more competent driver. And you need put away your cell phone while you're on the road. New IIHS research shows drivers using phones are four times as likely to get into crashes serious enough to injure themselves.