Small EVs Perform Well on Most, But Not All, Crash Tests

By · July 30, 2014

Chevy Volt IIHS Crash Test

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety announced today that it has completed tests of 32 small cars for its “small overlap front crash protection.” The results for plug-ins were mixed, with the Chevrolet Volt earning an “acceptable” rating, and the Nissan LEAF electric car getting a “poor” rating. The new small overlap test, introduced in 2012, replicates what happens when the front corner of a vehicle collides with another car or an object such as a tree.

The test has been difficult for most small cars, regardless of powertrain. The Mini Cooper Countryman is the only small car to earn a good rating in the latest crop of 12 cars to be tested. Five small cars, all 2014 models, earned an acceptable rating, two earned marginal and four earned poor ratings for occupant protection in the small overlap crash. The test is more difficult than either the head-on crashes conducted by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration or the IIHS moderate overlap test.

In the small overlap test, the main structures of the vehicle's front-end crush zone are bypassed, making it hard for the vehicle to manage crash energy. The occupant compartment can more easily collapse. “Collapse of the occupant compartment is the downfall for four small cars in this group, including the Fiat 500L, Mazda 5, Nissan Juke and Nissan LEAF," explained Joe Nolan, the Institute's senior vice president for vehicle research.

The Mazda 5 shares the distinction with two other cars as the worst performing models evaluated by the Institute in the small overlap test. The other two are the 2014 Kia Forte and 2012 Prius V hybrid wagon.

Overall, EVs Are Very Safe

In 2011, the Volt and LEAF were the first mainstream plug-in electric models to undergo IIHS crash test evaluations. The 2011 models earned top ratings in the moderate overlap front, side, head restraint and roof-strength evaluations. That's still the case with the 2014 versions of both cars. “Electric vehicles have a unique challenge in the small overlap test because of their heavy batteries. The Volt performed reasonably well, earning an acceptable rating, while the LEAF struggled," said Nolan.

Driver space in the Volt was maintained reasonably well in the test. However, the LEAF incurred as much as 16 inches of intrusion in the lower occupant compartment and 14 inches in the upper occupant compartment. The instrument panel, parking brake pedal and steering column were all pushed back toward the driver—increasing the chance of injuries to the left knee and left lower leg in a severe crash.

The Volt, which has a forward collision warning system, is the only car in the test group to earn a 2014 Top Safety Pick from IIHS. To qualify for that distinction, a vehicle must earn a good or acceptable rating for small overlap protection and a good rating in the other four tests.

No safety issues were identified with the batteries or electric systems of the Volt and LEAF. “We measure thermo and electrical properties of the battery," Nolan told CNBC. “We look at its integrity in the vehicle and in neither case for these crash tests or in any of the crash tests we've conducted of the LEAF or the Volt did we see a problem with the batteries."

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