Five popular small cars score ‘poor’ in rear seat safety in new, tougher crash test

By Sean Tucker

Stricter standards could tempt automakers to install better seat belts in the back seats. Here are the results of crash tests of five compact cars.

For the rear passengers, even the safest small car is not as safe as it could be. In a new round of safety tests, only two small sedans received a pass grade for protecting rear-seat occupants in a frontal collision.

One of America’s two largest auto safety testers made its crash tests more difficult this year. The results were not encouraging. But more rigorous testing is said to drive higher standards, so the result could lead to improved security technology in the long run.

America’s two crash test agencies

Many countries conduct crash tests on cars, but America benefits from the work of two safety testing organizations.

One of these is the federal government’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). It was not involved in this round of testing.

The other is not a government effort. A group of auto insurance companies fund their own safety laboratory – the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS). Insurers make more money when accidents are fewer and less fatal. Therefore, the insurance industry uses the IIHS to encourage the automotive industry to develop safer cars.

The institute’s tests are generally considered more rigorous than state tests, in part because the institute can change its testing programs without a long public comment period.

That’s exactly what it did this year.

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New, tougher tests

The IIHS has long conducted a frontal overlap crash test, in which a vehicle collides with a slightly offset vehicle, as is common at intersections. The test takes place at around 40 miles per hour and mimics a car crashing into a vehicle of similar size and weight.

In 2023, the agency added a doll depicting a 12-year-old child in the back seats.

The agency rates vehicles as “Good”, “Acceptable”, “Marginal” or “Poor” based on the likelihood of injury to the driver and now the second row passenger.

The IIHS released its first round of the new tests in March involving a panel of midsize SUVs. All vehicles protected their driver well, but the results for the rear seat passengers were worse. Only four of the 13 tested SUVs achieved the grade “good” for the protection of the rear passengers.

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Today the agency released similar results for a group of compact cars. They got worse.

None of the five cars tested achieved the grade “Good”.

“These results highlight one of the key reasons we updated our moderate overlap front crash test,” said IIHS President David Harkey. “In all of the small cars we tested, the rear dummy ‘dived’ under the seat belt, causing the lap belt to slide onto the stomach and increasing the risk of internal injuries.”

When submerged, the institute explains, the seat belt slips “from the hip bones to the abdomen, where internal injuries can occur.”

For the three poorly rated vehicles, measurements on the rear dummy also revealed a moderate to high risk of head, neck or chest injuries.”

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Bad news can trigger change

The institute says it “launched the updated moderately overlapped front end test last year after research showed that in newer vehicles, the risk of fatal injury for belted rear occupants is now higher than for those in the front.”

It’s not because rear seat security is getting worse. That’s because front seat safety is getting better all the time. Front-seat passengers have airbags in front of them and often “advanced seatbelts that are rarely available in the rear.”

With its stricter standards, the institute could persuade automakers to install better rear seat belts in most cars.

The results

Overall Vehicle Rating Driver Restraint Systems Rating and Kinematics Rear Passenger Restraint Systems Rating and Kinematics Rating 2022-2023 Honda Civic HMC Acceptable Good Poor 2023 Toyota Corolla TM Acceptable Good Poor 2022-2023 Kia Forte KR:000270 Poor Good Poor 2022-2023 Nissan Sentra NSANY Poor Good Poor 2022-2023 Subaru Crosstrek FUJHY Poor Good Poor

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5/23/23 0503ET

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