Safety Ratings for Electric Cars

By · January 23, 2014

Nissan LEAF crash test

Over the years, the Nissan LEAF and other electric cars have consistently earned high ratings for safety.

Judging by the safety ratings performed by the federal National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and the private Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), electric cars are pretty darn safe. Most get ratings at least as good, if not better, than their internal combustion counterparts.

Battery cars and plug-in hybrids have accumulated an admirable record, but it can become clouded by news reports—like the sensational treatment given three Tesla fires. And this week there’s more controversy in downgraded ratings for many small cars (especially the Honda Fit and Fiat 500) in the IIHS tests—not because the cars got any worse, but because the agency added a tough small-overlap crash test. The new small overlap evaluation tries to replicate what happens when the front corner of a car collides with another vehicle, or with an object like a tree, at 40 miles per hour.

Electric Cars = Small Cars

Let’s face it, many of today's battery cars—such as the Chevy Spark EV, Honda Fit, Fiat 500e, Scion iQ, Smart ED and more—are either small or smaller than small. So anything that calls into question small car safety could worry EV shoppers.

But electric cars, with their battery packs located beneath the vehicle, often have a lower center of gravity than their gasoline counterparts, which means safer handling. One reason for the Tesla Model S’ exceptional NHTSA rating is its ability to extend frontal crumple zones. Remember, the motor is back by the rear axle.

According to Russ Rader of IIHS (which hasn’t yet tested the car), “A longer crumple zone means there’s a longer period of time in which the crash is unfolding. The vehicle can slow down over a longer period of time, which benefits the people inside.” Rader added that other electric cars have also tested well.

No Greater Risks

At the Detroit Auto Show, David Friedman, NHTSA deputy administrator, was asked by Bloomberg about electric car safety. “We believe they don’t pose any greater risks than gasoline-fueled vehicles,” he said. In response to his agency’s ongoing investigation of the Tesla fires, he said, “People aren’t used to the new challenges that electric vehicles pose. We’re taking this issue seriously. We want to make sure electric vehicles are safe.”

Safety ratings are ongoing, and many cars aren’t currently rated by one or the other agency. Here’s a ratings survey from NHTSA and IIHS, with the proviso that many of the IIHS ratings are for all versions of the model.

NHTSA:

2014 Nissan LEAF: 4 out of 5 Stars in all categories.

2014 Ford Focus Electric: 5 out of 5 Stars across the board.

2014 Chevrolet Volt: 5 stars in all categories, but 4 in a frontal crash.

2014 Cadillac ELR: Not yet rated.

2014 Chevrolet Spark EV Not yet rated.

2014 Tesla Model S: 5 Stars in all categories. (Tesla said better than 5 stars, actually.)

2014 Ford C-MAX Energi: 5 stars in side crash, 4 stars in other categories.

2014 Ford Fusion Energi: 5 stars in all categories, but 4 in rollover.

2014 Fiat 500e: Not rated.

2014 Honda Accord Plug-In Hybrid: Not rated.

2014 Smart Fortwo Electric Drive: 4 stars in all categories, but 5 in side crash.

2014 Toyota Prius Plug-In Hybrid: Not rated.

IIHS:

2014 Nissan LEAF: Good (the highest rating) in all categories, but untested in the front overlap test.

2014 Chevrolet Volt: Same as the LEAF.

2014 Smart Fortwo (all models): Good in all categories except untested in the front overlap test and Acceptable in head restraints and seats.

2014 Chevy Spark (all models): Good in all categories, but Acceptable in the front overlap test.

2014 Fiat 500 (all models): Good in all categories, but Poor in the front overlap test.

2014 Honda Fit (all models): Same as the Fiat 500.

2014 Ford Fusion (all models): Good in all categories, but Acceptable in the front overlap test.

All things considered, those are top (or nearly top) scores across the board, with the safety of only the smallest EV models coming into question—mostly, as a result of new front overlap tests.

New to EVs? Start here

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