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Mini-cars fall short in crash tests

December 19, 2006|John O'Dell | Times Staff Writer

Toyota Motor Corp., whose cars and trucks have helped set industry standards for affordable safety, had two of the worst performers in crash tests of the new subcompact sedans that are growing in popularity as motorists seek better gas mileage.

The 2007 models of Toyota's basic Yaris sedan and its boxy Scion xB wagon received the lowest scores as the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety for the first time rated so-called mini-cars from five automakers.

The crash tests by the nonprofit insurance institute are more rigorous than federal tests and are more respected by consumer groups. Insurers created the institute decades ago and its crash tests have become the industry's big stick for pressuring automakers into building safer vehicles.

Nissan Motor Co.'s subcompact Versa received the insurance institute's top rating, but institute President Adrian Lund said none of the cars tested provided stellar protection when hit by larger vehicles.

"Tests like these are going to set small cars back a half-decade," said industry analyst Eric Noble of CarLab. The Orange firm specializes in product testing and development consulting for automakers.

"Toyota doesn't usually make mistakes," Noble said, "but it was foolish of them to bring over small cars designed for the Japanese market," where cars and trucks are much smaller than those in the U.S.

The crash test results, to be released by the Virginia-based insurance institute today, found the Versa best among 2007-model mini-cars in protecting occupants in front-, rear- and side-impact collisions. It received "good" ratings, the institute's top score, in all three tests.

The Nissan subcompact was designed for the European and North American markets and is longer, wider and heavier than other cars in what the insurance institute calls the mini-car class, or those that weigh less than 2,500 pounds.

Honda Motor Co.'s Fit subcompact was rated "good" in the 40-mpg front and 31-mph side crashes, but inadequate seats and head restraints earned it a "poor," the institute's worst score, in protecting occupants from injury in a 20-mph rear-end collision.

Both the Versa and the Fit are sold with side-curtain air bags as standard equipment. The bags pop out from above the vehicles' side windows to provide protection against head and torso injuries in side crashes.

Although most Toyota vehicles do well in such tests, both its Scion xB wagon, which doesn't offer side air bags, and its Yaris sedan, when unequipped with optional side air bags, did poorly in the side test. That test simulates being hit from the side by a full-size pickup truck or SUV.

A Yaris equipped with side air bags, a $650 option on the basic $12,545 car, fared far better, with a "good" rating in the side crash and a "marginal" in the rear crash test.

In a statement Monday, Toyota said the company's cars "meet the safety requirements of the federal government and NHTSA," the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Hyundai Motor Co.'s Accent, which comes with side air bags as standard equipment, also got a "poor" in the side crash test. The Rio, from Hyundai subsidiary Kia Motors Corp., wasn't tested but shares the same platform and basic structure as the Accent and was rated the same.

General Motors Corp.'s Korean-built Chevrolet Aveo, equipped with standard side air bags, got a "marginal" rating in the side crash, a "poor" in the rear collision and an "acceptable" in the front crash test.

Side air bags in both the Accent and the Aveo did "pretty good" in protecting occupants' from head injury in the side crash tests, the insurance institute's Lund said. But the Accent's body structure lacked the strength to protect against torso injury and the Aveo's air bags were insufficient for preventing chest and torso injury.

BMW's 2006 Mini Cooper, which was previously tested by the insurance institute, is being included in today's mini-car ratings. It received a "good" score for front-crash protection, an "acceptable" in the side-impact test and a "marginal" for rear-impact protection. The institute said it would issue a new test report when the redesigned 2007 model Mini is available next year.

The institute, which receives all of its is financial support from the insurance industry, publicizes its crash tests in an effort to push automakers to improve safety by offering cars with equipment such as side curtain air bags, head restraints that help prevent whiplash and strengthened side structures

Such improvements not only reduce injuries and deaths, they help keep insurers' costs down by holding down medical treatment and death benefit costs.

"Any car that's small and light isn't the best choice in terms of safety," Lund said. "The laws of physics dictate" that small cars will come out losers in collisions with larger and heavier vehicles, he said.

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