Toyota is still reeling from massive recalls affecting more than 8 million vehicles with brake problems and unintended acceleration. The brand has recalled 12 of its top models, equal to more than 60% of its sales inventory.
Meanwhile, federal safety regulators are still investigating the brakes on the recalled 2010 Prius hybrid. All told, repair costs and lost sales will cost the company more than $2 billion.
But just because the $22,800 Prius was recalled doesn't mean all compact cars are unsafe. On the contrary, Toyota's smallest offering, the $12,605 Yaris, was not recalled. And seven small vehicles, including the $17,495 Subaru Impreza and $17,620 Volkswagen Golf, have strong-enough safety scores and advanced technology to make our list of the safest small cars for 2010.
Behind the Numbers
To compile our list of the safest new small cars on the market, we used crash test data from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. IIHS rates vehicles good, acceptable, marginal or poor based on performance in high-speed front and side crash tests and a rollover test; it also evaluates seat and head restraints for protection against neck injuries in rear impacts. Our list includes the cars listed in the micro, mini and small-car segments that received up to one "acceptable" rating among its "good" ratings. It does not include vehicles that have not been fully tested for front, side, rear and rollover crashes.
Front tests involve a 40-mph frontal offset crash with an aluminum barrier; 40% of the width of each vehicle strikes the barrier on the driver's side. Those tests assess vehicles' structural designs. Side crash tests are a 31-mph T-bone impact into the driver side of the car by a moving deformable barrier that weighs 3,300 pounds and is shaped like the front of a SUV; side tests assess occupant protection when vehicles are struck in the side by SUVs or pickups. Rollover ratings assess vehicle roof strength for protection in rollover crashes. Rear crash protection/head restraint ratings focus on how well seat/head restraint combinations protect against whiplash injury.
All of the cars on our list received exemplary safety scores; five of them--the four-door Honda Civic, Kia Soul, Nissan Cube, Subaru Impreza and Volkswagen Golf--are listed as Top Safety Picks for 2010 as well. The distinction means the vehicle has earned "good" ratings in all four IIHS tests and offers electronic stability control.
Of course, micros like the Smart Fortwo aren't exactly ubiquitous on America's highways. In fact, aside from offerings from Volkswagen (the Beetle and Rabbit), MINI, and Smart, Americans have relatively little experience with truly small cars (minicars in particular are typically defined as street-legal vehicles less than 11.8 feet long). Others on the market include the Nissan Cube and the Honda Fit.
According to forecasts from R.L. Polk & Co, minicars in Western Europe will represent 10% of all new vehicles sales in 2010, expected to rise by one percentage point by 2014; in China the number is expected to remain at 7% of market share for the next five years. The U.S., by contrast, is expected to hold just 1% of its auto market for minicars by 2014.
And though Fiat ( FIATY.PK - news - people ) will bring the 1,900-pound 500 to the U.S. later this year, and the trim 2012 Ford Focus will hit lots in 2011, these moves are unlikely to shift Americans’ attitudes toward small cars.
"It's not going to be the dominant vehicle category in the U.S.," says Lonnie Miller, the director of industry analysis for R.L. Polk. "We've seen analysis that in the North American market, when people have several options for driving families, they will still gravitate toward larger vehicles. Unless gas stays north of something exorbitant, people are still going to take that chance."
If mini- and micro-cars aren't exactly a burgeoning segment, though, they are an upscale segment, and increasingly so. While the trim Chevrolet Spark and angular Scion iQ (both slated for release late this year) will appeal to buyers interested in quirky aesthetics and customization potential, the MINI Cooper and Smart Fortwo are already gathering in luxury-minded buyers who want a no-fuss second car. (Expect the Fiat 500 to fall somewhere in between the two).
In this realm, state-of-the-art technology previously seen only in larger or more upscale vehicles is popular: it makes small cars safer and more viable as daily driving options. And while small cars can't outweigh the laws of physics--they'll still crumple in a crash against a massive truck or SUV--says IIHS spokesman Russ Rader, safety technology has become a crucial selling-point for manufacturers.
"Automakers are competing with each other to show that they have vehicles that stand out--side airbags are rapidly becoming standard on all vehicles well ahead of any government mandate," Rader says. "And the next frontier now is crash-avoidance."
On Ford's much-hyped, 155-horsepower Focus, dynamic cornering control, once offered only on larger, more upscale vehicles, combines with a significantly stiffer body reinforced with high-strength steel to lend more safety credibility. The four- or five-door car also offers SYNC voice-activated controls, touch-screen navigation, intelligent access, push-button start and a "driver-connect" function that ties all the controls into one command center. The idea is to let the driver "truly take charge, without missing a beat," Ford says.
Not to be outdone, the $14,900 Honda Fit on our list offers an iPod-adaptable USB interface, satellite navigation, voice recognition, a remote-entry security system--and 10 cup holders. Bulked-up safety features include six airbags, active front head restraints and stability assist with traction control.
Nissan's $13,990 Cube, too, offers six airbags (some dual-stage) and stability control. It also offers Bluetooth and iPod capability, remote access, push-button start, satellite radio, navigation and a vehicle immobilizer system that protects the car from theft.
Of course, the bright-yellow, $2,200 Tata Nano currently being shown at the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum in New York City doesn't have stability control or a navigation system. But, as the only one of its 1,300-pound kind to ever set a wheel in America, it's still special:Tata hasn't announced plans to sell it here, but this one, at least, will be on display through April.
(Hannah Elliott, Forbes.com)