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Small Cars Make Big Safety Improvements for 2009

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Thanks to improvements like standard side airbags, small cars are becoming better equipped to protect motorists in serious crashes, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), which has released its 2009 Top Safety Picks.

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“Automakers have made big improvements to small cars to better protect people in frontal crashes,” said Joe Nolan, IIHS senior vice president. “They’ve also added stronger structures and standard head-protecting side airbags to help in side crashes, which are tougher on smaller, lighter cars."

Nolan noted that 11 of the 21 current small cars rated by the IIHS earned top scores in side protection. Two years ago, he said, three of 19 vehicle models earned the top score. The improvement is attributed to the growing number of small cars offering side airbags as standard equipment. In the past, side airbags were mostly optional.

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The IIHS gave top scores on front-end crash tests for several 2009 small cars. Three of those vehicles – the Pontiac Vibe, Toyota Matrix and Suzuki SX4 – also received top scores in side protection.

Only one vehicle tested, the 2009 Chrysler PT Cruiser, received the lowest mark of poor in side protection and rear protection. The Ford Focus and the Chevrolet HHR received top marks in front-end tests and received the second-highest score in side protection.

Although overall sales of new cars dropped by more than 16 percent through the end of November, small car sales increased more than 1 percent in the same period, according to Autodata Corp., and small cars made up for more than one-third of new domestic vehicles sold.

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The IIHS also says electronic stability control (ESC) is an important safety feature in small cars. Among the vehicles tested, ESC is standard equipment on the HHR and the Vibe. It’s also offered as an option on the SX4, Matrix, Focus, Elantra and Astra. Stability control is not available on the PT Cruiser.

To see the complete list of 2009 IIHS Top Safety Picks, visit www.iihs.org.

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