Smaller cars test better on safety

WASHINGTON — Small cars, which have become more popular with the fluctuation in gas prices, are becom ing better equipped to protect motorists in serious crashes, according to tests by the insurance industry.

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety gave top scores on front-end crash tests for several 2009 small cars released Wednesday. Three vehicles — the Pontiac Vibe and Toyota Matrix, which share the same underpinnings and are considered corporate twins, and the Suzuki SX4 — also received top scores in side protection.

Only one vehicle tested, the 2009 Chrysler PT Cruiser, received the lowest mark of "poor" on side protection and rear protection.

Two other 2009 small cars, the Ford Focus and the Chevrolet HHR, got top marks in front-end tests and received the second-highest score of acceptable in side protection.

"Automakers have made big improvements to small cars to better protect people in frontal crashes," said Joe Nolan, an Institute senior vice president. "They've also added stronger structures and standard head-protecting side air bags to help in side crashes, which are tougher on smaller, lighter cars."

Sales of the entire U.S. vehicle market have declined by more than 16 percent through the end of November, according to Autodata Corp.

But sales of small cars have increased more than 1 percent over the year as gas prices surpassed $4 a gallon and then fell by more than half. Small cars have grabbed a larger share of the domestic market this year, accounting for more than a third of new vehicle sales.

Nolan said that 11 of the 21 current small cars rated by the Insurance Institute earned top scores in side protection. Two years ago, he said, three of 19 vehicle models earned the top score.

He said that no car can overcome the laws of physics: Smaller cars typically provide less crash protection than larger, heavier vehicles. But the improvements in the small cars have been attributed to the growing installation of side air bags as standard equipment instead of making it an option for car buyers.