Side Impact Crash Protection: The Safest Small Cars in 2016

The Golf / GTI is still the safest small car you can buy for side impact protection.
The 2015+ Golf / GTI is still the safest small car you can buy for side impact protection.

Side impact collisions are among the most dangerous kinds of collisions we ever face in a passenger-sized vehicle. In order to keep our loved ones safe if we’re ever unfortunate enough to be involved in a t-bone, it helps to have some of the latest technology on our side. To that end, I’ve spent the last several years compiling lists of vehicles in various classes with the best crash test performance in side impacts to help parents and families make better new and used buying decisions. Previous articles in this series are below:

Side Impact Safety in 2015

The safest cars for side impact survival.

The safest minivans for side impact survival.

The safest small cars for side impact survival.

The safest SUVs and crossovers for side impact survival.

Side Impact Safety in 2016

The safest small SUVs and crossovers for side impact survival.

The safest family cars for side impact survival.

The safest minivans for side impact survival.

How dangerous are side impact collisions compared to frontal or rear collisions?

To put it simply, side impact collisions are the collisions that are most likely to take your life or the life of a loved one, when compared with front-, and rear-end collisions. From doing the math in an earlier post on side impact collisions, we know that even though only around 1 out of every 5 collisions involve side impacts, they lead to 1 out of every 3 vehicle occupant deaths in multiple vehicle collisions. In comparison, basically 1 out of 2 collisions involve frontal impacts, which lead to around 1 out of every 2 multiple collision deaths. Even more dramatically, while more than 1 out of every 4 collisions are rear enders, they only result in around 1 out of every 12 multiple collision deaths.

Looking at the numbers shows us side impacts are the collisions most likely to be fatal, even though they’re the least common. Knowing this, it’s worth figuring out how to reduce our risks of dying from one.

How to keep from dying in a side impact collision – what options do we have?

Unfortunately, if you live in the United States, you live in a country that isn’t the most willing to make changes to make our roads safer for everyone. In the US, you can drink much, much more before you’re considered drunk than you would in many parts of Europe (where the driver death rates are lower). Similarly, you don’t really have restrictions on how big your vehicle can be, regardless of how little experience you have as a driver. This isn’t the case in a number of other countries. You also live in a country that turns a blind eye toward many speed limits and is vehemently opposed to traffic cameras, despite their prevalence in countries with lower crash death rates. And of course, you’re also in a country where it’s hard to travel long (or short) distances inexpensively without driving.

I’ve written about some of these issues in past articles, such as one on why Swedish roads are among the safest in the world, and another on why driving in Europe is safer than driving in the US. I’ll have more articles soon about the things we can learn from other countries when it comes to driving safely (e.g., learning from Norway when it comes to child safety, looking into why Iceland has so few traffic deaths per year, and what Norway does differently to make its roads among the safest in the world for all drivers).

However, until we’re willing to make a number of necessary changes, if you’re invested in keeping your family safe from death in t-bone collisions, I’d recommend you:

1.) Avoid driving (e.g., by using public transportation or by cycling or walking…eventually this leads to a critical mass where everyone is safer).

2.) Limit driving (by the same measures above and by combining trips).

3.) Drive the  most side-impact-resistant vehicles possible.

Ultimately, to truly bring an end to side impact collisions, as well as to all collisions, we’re going to need to be forced to invest in the first two measures. I’d consider self-driving or autonomous vehicles to be part of “avoiding driving,” even though those aren’t going to eliminate collisions completely until the vast majority of vehicles on the road are no longer being driven by humans (the critical mass argument).

However, unless you’re in a position to completely follow step 1, you’ll need to focus on 2 and 3. Step 2 isn’t always feasible either, so this post focuses on Step 3, and deals specifically with choosing the safest small cars available for side impact protection in the US in 2016. I realize 2016 is close to an end, but this is also means this is the best time of the year to get discounts on current year models if you’re interested in the latest technology. Fortunately, as you’ll see below, you don’t always need the newest vehicles to be as safe as currently possible. You just need to know who’s doing the best job.

This post focuses on small cars and the best ones to be in if you’re unfortunate enough to be in a side impact collision. There are plenty of reasons to choose small cars over larger ones, whether due to a desire to save on purchase costs, save fuel, save the planet, save parking space, save maintenance costs, or simply because they can help us live more minimally. Whatever your reasons for driving one, the decision to use one shouldn’t accompany a decision to sacrifice significant amounts of safety.

Calculating which small cars are the safest for side impact collisions by structural integrity (crush distance)

I’ve written about the math behind these calculations in previous posts, such as in the relevant articles on surviving side impacts in cars, minivans, and SUVs and crossovers, so hop back to those articles to read about this in detail. The short version is that the IIHS runs a side impact test. It simulates a 3300 lb SUV crashing into the side of a vehicle at 31 mph, or 143.7KJ of kinetic energy. Every vehicle deforms somewhat at the B-pillar when absorbing such an impact, and there’s a subscore in the IIHS test known as the “structure and safety cage” looks into how close the B-pillar intrudes into the center of the driver’s seat during the collision. Less intrusion is better. Let’s see who has the least intrusion right now in the family car market.

I searched through the test scores of every small car currently available in the US to make this best-of list. I’m defining small cars as any car capable of transporting at least five individuals while being classified as a small (compact) or mini (subcompact) car. I also made the lower threshold for inclusion in the list 20 cm of intrusion resistance, which knocked out a lot of vehicles that were present the last time I made this list. These are the best of the best.

Keep in mind that the IIHS continually updates their side impact information while gathering additional information, so in a few months, it’s likely that these numbers may be slightly different, and I’ll have another article to reflect those changes. All data is accurate as of late November 2016, and all images are either from yours truly or courtesy of Wikipedia.

The 5 safest small cars for side impact collisions in 2016

golf - mk7 - publicdomain22 cm – 2015-2016 Volkswagen Golf / GTI.

Two model years later, the Volkswagen Golf and GTI are still the most side-impact resistant small cars you can buy, and only trail the Mercedes-Benz E-Class among all cars capable of seating 5 people. Considering that the Golf costs much, much less than an E-Class sedan, it’s well worth considering as a safe and affordable small family car.

The Golf is available in several flavors, but all feature good safety scores, including the side impact frontal crash test score, and all feature a class-leading 22 cm of side impact intrusion protection.

You can read my full 3 across car seat guide to the Golf / GTI here.

500l - 2014 - publicdomain21 cm – 2014-2016 Fiat 500L

The Fiat 500L continues to hold its own as one of the most structurally sound cars on the market for side impacts. However, it’s disappointing to see that Fiat Chrysler Automobiles continue to sit on their hands regarding the poor small overlap score that the 500L received in 2014. Three years later, with nothing changed, it looks like this simply isn’t a priority for FCA. That said, it’s impressive to see it close to the top of the list when it comes to side impact protection, especially considering its placement as the second-best small family car you can currently buy.

You can read my full 3 across car seat guide to the 500L here.

dart - 2013 - publicdomain19 cm – 2013-2016 Dodge Dart.

I was happy to write about the Dodge Dart in previous rankings for safe small cars, and am disappointed to see FCA discontinue it after the 2016 model year, as it was a well-designed small car from a safety standpoint. Fortunately, this does mean that there will be a healthy used market for the Dart for individuals and families on a budget. Unfortunately, it means that the options for great new small cars are a little slimmer this year than they were last year.

You can read my full 3 across car seat guide to the Dart here.

2016-demio-ia-pd18.5 cm – 2016 Scion iA / Toyota Yaris iA.

The iA is a Mazda 2 that was rebranded in the US as the Scion iA before being rebranded again as the Toyota Yaris iA. Regardless of what it’s called, it’s a good car. The first minicar on the list, it features good safety scores in every area, including in the small overlap test, and even features some level of automated front crash prevention. I’m looking forward to learning more about how the iA performs in real-world conditions under the ultimate metric: the driver death rate.

2016-civic-pd18.5 cm – 2016 Honda Civic.

Honda makes its first appearance in a car-based side impact resistance list with the new Civic. It features great safety scores all around and rounds out the top 5 by tying the iA with 18.5 cm of crush resistance. All signs point to this being the safest Civic yet, and as with every other vehicle on this list, I’m looking forward to seeing how it performs in actual driver death rate statistics.

You can read my full 3 across car seat guide to the Civic here.

How to choose a car to keep you safe in side impact crashes

In conclusion, what does this all mean? Should you sell your current car and buy one of the above immediately? Is every other car on the road just not good enough?

Well, not exactly. There are a number of other great vehicles that I didn’t include on the list to save time that were literally only a centimeter or two away from appearing on the list. The Toyota Prius, for example, was recently estimated to have been the small car with the lowest driver death rate by the IIHS, beating out a number of huge SUVs and pickup trucks. It is by all accounts one of the safest cars you can currently buy. However, the current generation didn’t make the list because it had an intrusion score of 17.0 cm the last time I checked, and I cut the list off at  18.5 cm. And to be precise, the version of the Prius that did very well was the 2010-2011 Prius, which had an intrusion score of 11-11.5 cm and wouldn’t have been anywhere near this list even if I’d extended it significantly.

There are also a number of additional vehicles that didn’t make the cutoff simply because I was only interested in the top vehicles for this post. This doesn’t mean there aren’t other safe choices out there. It just means I focused on the very best-performing ones. The 2016 Toyota Corolla, for example, wasn’t included even though it featured 18.5 cm of side impact crush resistance because its overlapping seat belt design effectively prohibits the safe transport of more than 4 passengers (or 2 car seats) at a time.

The takeaway message is that it’s worth looking beyond the overall “good” score and diving into the structural integrity subscore when searching for safe cars for this particular kind of crash. Of course, you’ll start with looking for airbags and the overall “good” score, but beyond that, if you’re choosing between two vehicles that seem good on paper, dive into this subscore and you might be surprised at what you find. And remember that just because a car isn’t anywhere near the top numbers on this list doesn’t mean it’s not safe.

We can’t control everything. The safest option is still not driving at all, followed by driving as little as possible. But if you’ve got to drive, drive safely, and do your best to choose a safe vehicle. To that end, my safe family vehicle analyses for cars and SUVs are worth reading.

I hope you enjoyed reading this as much as I enjoyed writing it. It’s exciting to see where we’re headed in vehicle safety these days. I’ll have followup articles soon comparing comparing car and SUV safety along the same metrics. Stay tuned, remember to avoid common mistakes parents make with car seats, and check out some 3 across car seat guides while you’re here.

If you find the information on car safety, recommended car seats, and car seat reviews on this car seat blog helpful, you can bookmark and shop through this Amazon link. Canadians can bookmark and shop through this link.

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