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Safest, most fuel-efficient small cars

Consumer Reports News: June 13, 2011 08:38 AM

In years past, small cars rightfully carried the stigma of being unsafe—they were no match for the larger SUVs on the road in a crash and too inexpensive to have the latest safety gear. But times have changed. The latest small cars are not only fuel efficient, but their structure has improved to provide better impact absorption and occupant protection, and they now are commonly equipped with standard key safety features, such as antilock brakes, side-curtain air bags, and stability control. As a result, many modern small cars are earning high marks in various safety evaluations. Below, we show how the latest small cars stack up.

Back in 2006, only three small cars earned the Top Safety Pick award from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) by being rated a top score of Good in front, side, and rear crash protection. Since then, the list has grown to 21 (including a few small wagons) even as the requirements to achieve the award have been made more stringent. In addition to achieving the top scores in crash tests, now a vehicle must have available electronic stability control and earn top marks in the roof strength test, a tough test established in 2009 to see how well a vehicle would fare in a rollover.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) also made changes to their vehicle crash worthiness evaluation for the 2011 model year. Their five-star crash test ratings are also more stringent and now include an overall score, as well as ratings for front, side, and rollover risk. The changes in these crash test standards and methodologies have forced the auto industry to respond by making safer cars.

At Consumer Reports, we evaluate dynamic safety by testing vehicles in our accident avoidance maneuver and braking to assess how vehicles would perform in an emergency situation. (See how we test cars.)

Below is a list of small cars for the 2011 model year that have been tested by Consumer Reports and have earned the IIHS Top Safety Pick award. We also include the overall fuel economy in our tests for the automatic versions of the vehicles, if available.

A few notes--the Nissan Sentra and Versa were both tested by all three organizations, but they did not earn the IIHS top award. We are are currently testing the Chevrolet Volt, which earned an IIHS Top Safety Pick and five-star in NHTSA overall score, and will report our findings soon.

Model NHTSA overall score IIHS CR's accident avoidance CR's braking score CR's overall MPG
Chevrolet Cruze 5 stars Top Safety Pick 26
Ford Fiesta 4 stars Top Safety Pick 33
Hyundai Elantra NA Top Safety Pick 29
Kia Forte 4 stars Top Safety Pick 28
Kia Soul 4 stars Top Safety Pick 25
Mazda3 sedan 4 stars Top Safety Pick 28
Mitsubishi Lancer NA Top Safety Pick 25
Nissan Cube NA Top Safety Pick 28
Nissan Juke NA Top Safety Pick 24
Scion xB NA Top Safety Pick 23
Scion tC 5 stars Top Safety Pick 28
Subaru Impreza sedan NA Top Safety Pick 24
Toyota Corolla 3 stars Top Safety Pick 32
Toyota Prius 5 stars Top Safety Pick 44
Volkswagen Golf NA Top Safety Pick 24
Volkswagen GTI NA Top Safety Pick 27
Volkswagen Jetta 4 stars Top Safety Pick 25

When looking for a new car, it’s best to consider all crash tests, as the differing methodologies give a look at different crash scenarios. (See Crash test 101 for more information on the tests and how they are conducted.) Also, note that NHTSA, IIHS as well as Consumer Reports tests are ongoing, so the 2011 list will likely grow before the end of the year with more safe, fuel-efficient models to choose from. We currently own and are testing a number of small 2012 models including the Ford Focus, Honda Civic, and Hyundai Accent.

2011 car safety features
Fuel economy guide
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Six of 13 small, fuel-efficient cars earn IIHS Top Safety Pick award

Liza Barth

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