As a group, subcompact vehicles tested by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) in its tough new standard for front-end collisions did very poorly. In fact, 10 of 11 small cars tested failed to pass.

Only the 2013 Chevrolet Spark earned an “Acceptable” score on the small-overlap test, during which 25 percent of the front end, on the driver’s side, strikes a 5-foot-tall barrier at 40 mph.

The Spark also did very well on the other four IIHS tests, earning “Good” ratings and garnering a Top Safety Pick award.

Cars receiving “Poor” grades in the IIHS small-overlap test include the Honda Fit, Fiat 500, Hyundai Accent, Mitsubishi Mirage, Nissan Versa and Toyota Prius C. Earning a “Marginal” score are the Ford Fiesta, Kia Rio, Mazda2 and Toyota Yaris.

According to a report in the Los Angeles Times, the vehicles are the worst-performing of any the IIHS has evaluated so far.

Why Safety Ratings Matter

For many consumers, how well a vehicle does in safety tests plays an important role in purchase consideration. If a car fails to achieve top safety ratings, it’s automatically removed from their list of cars to buy.

Reviews by third-party entities such as Kelley Blue Book, Edmunds, and Consumer Reports are also significant in shaping consumer opinion about which cars to buy – and which ones to avoid.

After Consumer Reports removed the Toyota Camry, Toyota RAV4 and Prius V from its recommended cars list last year because of poor scores in the IIHS small-overlap test, Toyota took action. The Toyota Camry received structural modification, resulting in an “Acceptable” rating for the midsize sedan.

“Small, lightweight vehicles have an inherent safety disadvantage,” said Joe Nolan, IIHS senior vice president for vehicle research, adding that this is why consumers should choose one with the best protection. “As a group, mini-cars aren’t performing as well as other vehicles in the small overlap crash.”

What Happened During Testing

Even though the Chevy Spark did well in the small-overlap test and earned a Top Safety Pick designation, that doesn’t mean it sailed through the test without any negatives. According to the IIHS, the Spark’s vehicle structure came apart in the crash.

“When a vehicle’s structure doesn’t hold up, injury risk is high,” said the Institute in its report. “Consumers should remember that the Spark, while offering more small overlap protection than other minicars weighs less than 2,500 pounds and doesn’t protect as well as a larger and heavier vehicle with a comparable rating.”

Here’s what happened during testing:

  • In seven of the 11 cars tested, the safety belts either didn’t do a good enough job holding the test dummy in place or the dummy’s head missed, sliding off the front airbag.
  • The dummy was unprotected in eight cars tested. In the Toyota Yaris, it didn’t deploy at all.
  • In the 2013 Honda Fit, the dummy’s head slid by an airbag during the crash test and struck the instrument panel.
  • The Fiat 500 test resulted in the driver’s door opening after the hinges tore off.

The Fit is due to be replaced by an all-new design for the 2014 model year. Honda says it anticipates the redesigned Fit will do well in the IIHS’s crash tests, earning a top rating. The 2014 Fit uses more high-strength steel and has a redesigned front structure to better capture and direct crash energy and improve passenger protection.

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