Market Snapshot


As Dan Carney of points out, Americans have had a tendency to supersize everything, from their food to the vehicles they drive.  However, with the rising prices of gasoline, more Americans have decided to downsize their vehicles.  And the sales of smaller vehicles reflect this change.  Honda, for example, reported the most Civic sales ever during the month of May.  But for some Americans, the thought of going to a smaller car is an uncomfortable feeling, fearing they are giving up safety for better fuel economy.

Americans fearing the lack of safety features of smaller vehicles is not unwarranted.  As the article indicates, decades ago, the ability of smaller vehicles to protect occupants in a collision “left much to be desired.” The article also says that small cars usually “fared poorly in laboratory crash tests and produced grossly higher fatality rates in real-world driving.”  But since then, crash protection, along with the size of the small cars themselves, have been growing.  Between 1985 and 1995, the crash fatalities in the smallest cars on the road fell by 15%, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.  That 10-year span also reflects the period when airbags went from a novelty on luxury vehicles to standard equipment on all cars. Today’s small vehicles feature “an array of impressive technologies” aimed at maximizing safety.  High-strength steel is able to withstand blows with less intrusion on a vehicle’s cabin, and the addition of antilock brakes and electronic stability control helps to reduce the number of crashes altogether.

The small cars of today are actually bigger and heavier than the small cars built decades ago. For example, a '84 Honda Civic hatchback weighed 1,830 lbs., compared to 2,628 lbs. today, with the Si version coming in at 2,945 lbs.  The '85 Chevy Sprint weighed 1,540 lbs., compared to today’s Chevy Aveo which weighs 2,348 lbs. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) identifies the 3,000-lb. mark to be the weight that provides good crash protection on highways populated with large trucks and SUVs.  And Russell Rader of IIHS says that 3,000 lbs. also represents the point of diminishing returns, beyond which each extra pound adds less crash protection.

The federal government has toughened requirements for things such as side-impact protection, mandating more metal in a vehicle’s side.  The Honda Fit and Toyota Yaris received “good” scores (the highest available) from the IIHS’s frontal and side crash tests. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration gave the Fit 5 stars in the frontal crash and 5 stars for the front seat in the side impact test, with 3 stars for the back seat in a side impact.

Source: Carney, Dan.  (June 19, 2007). “Driving Small Doesn’t Mean Less Safe: Along With the Size of Small Cars, Crash Protection Has Been Growing.”, Retrieved June 27, 2007, from