Last Updated Sep 14, 2011 9:23 AM EDT
As high gas prices have driven Americans to buy more small cars, they are getting an added bonus, beyond the lofty MPG: Small cars are much safer than they used to be.
In all, six small cars have received a Top Safety Pick designation from the IIHS. So as we near the traditional Oct. 1 start to the new model year, here's a look at some of the 2012 models -- of all sizes -- that IIHS has declared to be among the safest cars. (The Institute will not release its complete list of 2012 Top Pick models until later this year.)
The Chevy Sonic, just going on sale, has an EPA rating of 40 MPG in highway driving -- joining the 2012 Ford Focus and Honda Civic to pair safety with fuel efficiency. "The list of cars with the best fuel economy now includes those with the highest crash-test ratings in their class," says IIHS chief research officer David Zuby. To get a Top Safety Pick rating, cars must get the highest possible score in front, side, rear and rollover tests.
The top rating for the Sonic, which covers both sedan and hatchback versions, is a big improvement from the small car it replaces, the Aveo, which got marginal ratings in three out of the four tests. Like many other new small cars, the Sonic has standard side airbags as well as electronic stability control, which helps prevent rollover accidents. In the rollover test at IIHS, the Sonic supported 5.37 times its own weight; four times is the minimum for a top rating.
Let's have a closer look at the other top-rated 2012 models:
The car offers an optional rear-view camera, which lets the driver know if someone or something is directly behind the car before backing up. Also, technology called torque vectoring control adds brake force to one side of the car when negotiating sharp curves.
Honda Civic: The 2012 Civic improves the safety profile of the 2011 version, with stability control and brake assist -- which increases braking pressure when the pedal is hit hard in emergency situations -- now standard on all models.
Additionally, Top Picks ratings were announced last week for the luxury Audi A6 and the mid-size sedan Volkswagen Passat.
The A6 has numerous other safety features common on luxury cars. Adaptive headlights turn when the wheel turns, to better illuminate curving roads at night. Forward collision warning works with so-called "smart" cruise control to sense with radar when a car ahead is so close a crash is imminent -- and start applying the brakes.
The Passat also has a full complement of side air bags, stability control and emergency braking assist for panic situations.
While style, performance and MPG remain major factors in any buying decision, shoppers should not have to sacrifice safety to get what they want.
Photos courtesy of the manufacturers
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