In the first crash test evaluation of plug-in electric cars, both Chevrolet Volt and Nissan Leaf have scored a "Top Safety Pick" rating from the Insurance Institute of Highway Safety. To get that rating, they scored well in crash tests for front, rear and rollover accidents, plus side-impact crashes.
"What powers the wheels is different, but the level of safety for the Volt and Leaf is as high as any of our other top crash test performers," says Joe Nolan, chief administrative officer of the IIHS, a research organization funded by the insurance industry.
Institute testers made these points about the recently introduced electric-car rivals:
- The battery and electric motor system caused no special safety problems that might cause dangers for passengers or emergency rescuers. IIHS used a voltage meter in the crash tests to make sure no electricity was transferred to the bodies of the cars. "The high-voltage systems are located in hardened compartments away from crash damage. And engineers have designed the systems so they automatically shut down after a crash," IIHS spokesman Russ Rader explained.
- The electric cars are actually safer in a crash than most small cars the same size. From their length and width, Volt and Leaf are classified as small cars. But because of their heavy battery packs, their weight is closer to that of mid-size or large cars. The Leaf weighs about 3,370 pounds and the Volt 3,760; by way of comparison, the Chevrolet Impala, a large family car, weighs 3,580 pounds. Heavier vehicles protect occupants better than lighter ones, the Institute points out.
The Volt and Leaf, both on sale this year, have won assorted awards. (See Chevrolet Volt: What will the Car of the Year Really Cost You.) The Leaf is an electric-only vehicle with a range of about 73 miles per charge as measured by the EPA. The Volt has a similar battery and electric motor power plant, but it also has a backup gasoline generator that extends its driving range from about 35 miles on batteries to around 300 miles. The EPA ranks them both as achieving the equivalent of more than 90 miles per gallon when running on batteries.
The IIHS tests are the major safety ratings other than those of the federal government's National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which has not yet tested the Volt or Leaf. (See Safest Cars on the Road: Is Yours on the List?)
Shoppers considering an electric car may still have concerns about whether they can drive far enough on one charge and where they will be able to recharge the batteries. But these crash test results should put any special safety worries to rest.
More on MoneyWatch: