For those who think that small cars are unsafe - and there are many critics of the Tata Nano amongst the crowd - news that the tiny Smart ForTwo has earned top marks in crash tests conducted by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) may come as a nasty surprise.
Of course, they can always claim that the car's pedigree as a Daimler vehicle, the same company that makes the the Mercedes-Benz, may have made a difference.
Although the pint-sized powerhouse managed the best possible rating of "Good" for front and side impact protection in tests by the IIHS, a private group funded by insurance companies, it received an "Acceptable" rating, which is the second best possible, for whiplash protection in rear impacts. This makes it ineligible from getting a "Top Safety Pick" from the IIHS.
But even if the ForTwo improved its whiplash protection, it would not be named a Top Safety Pick, said IIHS spokesman Russ Rader. The institute does not have a specific size requirement, but the ForTwo is simply too small to be considered safe under all conditions, including highway driving, he said. (View the smart fortwo picture gallery)
The car is the smallest sold in the US and two can fit into one standard parking space, thereby allowing back-in parking in otherwise parallel parking zones. Besides the advantage of its small size, the smart fortwo was rated the most fuel-efficient car in the US Federal Government's 2008 Fuel Economy Guide apart from hybrids, with mileage estimated at 36 miles per gallon for combined city and highway driving. This translates to a fuel efficiency of 15.16 kilometres per litre.
The smart fortwo is also the smallest car the IIHS has ever tested, with a length of 8 feet 10 inches and a curb weight of 730 kilograms. "All things being equal in safety, bigger and heavier is always better," said IIHS president Adrian Lund in a statement. "But among the smallest cars, the engineers at Smart did their homework and designed a high level of safety into a very small package."
The smart fortwo, which the IIHS classifies as "microcar," has very little crush space in its short front end. However, the car's seatbelts and airbags are credited with helping minimize crash forces on the occupants. The crash test dummy's head hit the steering wheel through the airbag during the test for frontal impacts, but the impact wasn't hard enough to affect the final rating, said spokesman Rader.
"The IIHS frontal crash test is conducted at a higher speed than required by federal safety standards, and it's an offset test that replicates most real-world crashes. The Smart's sophisticated safety management system performed as designed," said Smart's Schembri.
However, the vehicle had not fared so well in earlier crash tests conducted in April by the US government's National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). In that test, for head-on impacts, the Smart earned the top rating of "Five Stars" for driver protection, but just "Three Stars" for passenger protection, a low rating not usually recorded by modern cars.
This difference in results can be attributed to the different testing methodologies used. While NHTSA tests vehicles by crashing them straight into an immovable barrier, the IIHS crashes vehicles into a deformable barrier so that just part of the vehicle's front end strikes it, without any crash dummy being placed on the rear seat.
The smart fortwo earned the best possible ratings in side impact tests conducted by both NHTSA and IIHS, but in both cases, the door became unlatched during the crash tests. While that didn't affect the final score in either case, it's not ideal, said IIHS's Lund.
See: smart fortwo: the word's most eco-friendly car with the lowest CO2 emission
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