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The good news is that traffic fatalities are at historic lows, thanks in large part to increasingly sophisticated auto designs, advanced safety features and stricter seatbelt and DUI laws. The bad news is auto crashes still accounted for 32,788 deaths in 2010, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which means a vehicle-related fatality occurs an average of once every 16 minutes. Motor vehicle collisions remain the leading cause of death for individuals between the ages of three and 34.
Choosing the safest auto available is particularly important when shopping for a small car, where every advantage is essential. That’s because the laws of physics dictate that, all else being equal, a smaller and lighter vehicle will tend to fare worse in a crash than will a larger and heavier model.
We started out by consulting the 2012 model-year list of "Top Safety Picks" from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), a non-profit organization funded by the insurance industry. These included a record 31 mid-priced and luxury small cars. "For the second year running a record number of models qualify as Top Safety Picks," says IIHS president Adrian Lund. "It’s tough to win, and we commend auto manufacturers for making safety a top priority."
To qualify, a car must garner top scores across the board for performance in front, side, rollover, and rear-end crashes based on ratings determined by the IIHS’ evaluations. Vehicles are rated in each category on a basis of "good," "acceptable," "marginal" or "poor" performance.
We further winnowed down the number of choices to the 10 models on our Safest Small Cars list by identifying the models that offer the most safety features to both help protect their occupants in a crash and help their drivers steer clear of collisions in the first place.
Like all the vehicles in our "Safest Small Cars" list, this racy compact luxury wagon-like four-door hatchback is a 2012 "Top Safety Pick" according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, and includes a full range of passive and active safety features, including front, front-side and side-curtain airbags, antilock brakes and electronic stability control. In addition, the A3 offers seat-mounted side-impact airbags for rear passengers and all-wheel drive for enhanced wet-road traction as optional equipment.
This luxury-oriented adaptation of the compact Chevrolet Cruze sedan packs no less than 10 airbags, including knee-height airbags for the driver and front passenger and seat-mounted airbags for rear riders. Also standard is General Motors’ OnStar safety/communications system that automatically engages to seek assistance if a crash occurs.
Feeling more upscale than most compact cars, the Cruze is a solid choice for those who want to downsize their rides. In addition to the basics, the Cruze includes 10 standard airbags, including rear seat-mounted and front knee-height airbags. Also included is the OnStar communications/safety system that features automatic crash notification.
All new for 2012 the Chevy Sonic is a sophisticated and engaging subcompact car. Like the larger Cruze with which it shares powertrains and other components it comes with 10 airbags, including rear seat-mounted and front knee-height airbags, along with the OnStar communications/safety system that automatically calls for assistance in the event of a collision.
Though at over $39,000 it's costly for what amounts to a compact car, the Volt is an "extended range electric vehicle" that can run for around 40 miles on a charge before a small gas engine takes over to run a generator. It’s officially rated at a combined gas/electric 94 mpg, Knee-height airbags for the driver and front passenger are included, along with the OnStar safety/communications system that affords automatic crash notification.
Lexus CT 200h
This compact gas/electric four-door hybrid hatchback gets the best fuel economy in the luxury class and offers a wealth of advanced features. Knee-height airbags for the driver and front passenger are included, as is Toyota’s On-Star-like Safety Connect telematics system with automatic crash notification. An optional Pre-Collision System tightens the front seat belts and primes the brakes for full stopping power if sensors determine a crash is imminent.
This engaging compact sedan and four-door hatchback offer sportier than average driving dynamics, with active front headrests to help reduce whiplash injuries in a rear-end collision standard. A blind spot monitoring system to warn of cars or obstructions the driver might not otherwise see and active headlights the pivot slightly to help light the way through turns are optional.
This sporty compact coupe delivers plenty of driving enjoyment at a budget price. Adaptive front headrests to protect against whiplash, and knee-height airbags for the driver and front passenger to help prevent leg injuries are included for added safety.
This amenable compact sedan/four-door hatchback is a practical and solid performer; the IIHS recommends the base versions, but not the "fast and furious" WRX model. All-wheel drive, a knee-height airbag on the driver’s side and front active headrests are all standard.
Toyota’s best-selling gas/electric hybrid car offers a Lexus-like assortment of safety features, including a driver's knee-height airbag and active front headrests as standard equipment. Optional systems include a head-up display that projects vehicle speed and other information onto the windshield in the driver’s line of sight so eyes can remain on the road. Also available is a Lane Departure Warning system and a Pre-Collision System; the latter retracts the front seatbelts and can even apply the brakes in certain conditions should it conclude a crash is unavoidable. Toyota’s OnStar-like Safety Connect telematics system, which includes automatic collision notification, is also available.
In Pictures: The Safest Small Cars