With the Smart ForTwo coming to the United States for the first time, we have heard many questions about this microcar’s safety than its fuel economy. How will its occupants fare in a collision? We now have some definitive answers regarding crash protection from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS); both organizations give the miniscule ForTwo decent marks.
In April, the NHTSA conducted front- and side-crash tests on the redesigned 2008 model, awarding the car four stars for frontal protection for the driver and three for the passenger. In the side crash test, the agency gave it five stars, though flagged a safety concern because the driver door unlatched and opened, creating a risk for occupant ejection.
After viewing the NHTSA test and videos, we were anxious to see how the Smart ForTwo fared in the more stringent IIHS tests. In a report released today, IIHS has given the ForTwo its highest rating of Good in frontal-offset and side-impact tests. As can be seen in the video (search in the Consumer Reports crash test video player), the ForTwo experiences some drama in the tests.
When the Smart strikes the offset barrier, there is precious little structure ahead of the passenger compartment to absorb the crash energy, putting more work on the restraint system. The driver dummy’s head struck the steering wheel through the front air bag, though injury measures were considered Acceptable. The restraints and dummy kinematics were rated Good, matching the overall rating. In watching the video, the ForTwo spins around in what could be an adjacent lane or possibly off the road. Most vehicles do not spin nor move laterally in such a way, raising the possibility of other risks. In the NHTSA test, on the other hand, vehicles are crashed into a flat wall; the ForTwo rebounds expectedly in that test, without rotating or moving sideways.
It is important to note that the IIHS’s frontal-crash-test simulates what would happen if two cars of the same weight and type crashed head-on, left headlight to left headlight. The results can only be compared to other vehicles in the same class. However, there are no other microcars offered in the U.S. by IIHS’s classification. So, while the ForTwo would do well in a frontal impact with another Smart or in a single-car crash, the test results can’t predict how the Smart would fare hitting a larger vehicle. The reality is the Smart will always be the smaller car in a two-vehicle accident.
Side crash test
In the side-impact test, the 3,300-pound IIHS moving barrier pushed the diminutive car quite a distance across the floor of the test center. This test represents the impact from an SUV, and the visual is reminiscent of the Mini Cooper test (check out the video). Again, this could raise the possibility of other risks.
The ForTwo’s stiff side structure and standard side air bags protected the driver, earning the ForTwo a Good rating for side-impact performance. Injury forces recorded on the dummy’s head, neck, torso, pelvis, and left leg were all low. However, the driver door unlatched, as it had in the NHTSA test. As a result, IIHS downgraded the structural rating from Good to Acceptable, however the Institute notes that “the opening didn’t appear to affect dummy movement during the test and injury measures on the driver dummy were low.” Translation: make sure you’re wearing your seatbelt.
The risk of small cars
While the ForTwo performed well overall in the tests by these two organizations, the risk of death is high in crashes of smaller, lighter vehicles. "For vehicles 1-3 years old during 2006," reports IIHS, "minicars experienced 106 driver deaths per million registered vehicles compared with 69 driver deaths in large cars."
The ForTwo is the smallest car offered in the United States, measuring just 106 inches and tipping the scales at a bantam-weight 1,745 pounds. To put it into perspective, our tested Mini Cooper S was 146 inches long and weighed 2,690 pounds. Inquiring about the safety is only natural with the ForTwo.
"All things being equal, in safety, bigger and heavier is always better. But among the smallest cars, the engineers of the Smart did their homework and designed a high level of safety into a very small package," said Institute President Adrian Lund in a released statement. The ForTwo includes seat-mounted side air bags (as opposed to curtain-style, head-protection bags), antilock brakes, and electronic stability control (ESC)—car safety features we recommended you look for in any car. Having ESC in such an inexpensive car is commendable.
There are many small, comparably priced cars to choose from, though admittedly few are as distinctive on the roads, easy to park, or promise such high mileage as the Smart. As with any car purchase, be sure to research all your options to ensure you are making a truly smart decision.
Look for a full road test of the Smart ForTwo in the months to come.
View videos of about 250 vehicles evaluated in IIHS crash tests.