D. Gilson is a writer and author of essays, poetry, and scholarship that explore the relationship between popular culture, literature, sexuality, and memoir. His latest book is Jesus Freak, with Will Stockton, part of Bloomsbury’s 33 1/3 Series. His other books include I Will Say This Exactly One Time and Crush. His first chapbook, Catch & Release, won the 2012 Robin Becker Prize from Seve...

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Jeffrey Johnson is a legal writer with a focus on personal injury. He has worked on personal injury and sovereign immunity litigation in addition to experience in family, estate, and criminal law. He earned a J.D. from the University of Baltimore and has worked in legal offices and non-profits in Maryland, Texas, and North Carolina. He has also earned an MFA in screenwriting from Chapman Univer...

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Reviewed by Jeffrey Johnson
Insurance Lawyer

UPDATED: Jul 19, 2021

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When we select an automobile based on fuel-efficiency, we’re usually left with no choice but to pick from the smallest of cars – those that are in the sub-compact/compact to the mid-sized classes. In fact, in this year’s bumper crop of cars with the  highest EPA estimated fuel economy are all in these classes of cars.

So, Do I Give Up Safety with these Smaller Cars?

We should get this question out of the way first thing, even if it does seem anti-climatic.

Yes, you’ll give up some safety by selecting a smaller car.

While smaller cars are designed with safety in mind, “safety” is a relative term. Just as it’s a given that the smallest cars normally provide the highest fuel economy, it’s also a given that generally speaking, the larger a car is, the safer it is. Larger cars simply offer more protection to both drivers and passengers in car wrecks, so you will give up some potential for safety.

Size, Mass and Weight: Each Contributes to Safety

There’s a good reason why larger cars provide more safety than smaller ones do. The size, mass and weight of a car directly relates to how it performs in a wreck. That performance will translate into how providers will price car insurance policies.

The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA), the government agency that’s charged with crash testing new cars in the United States indicates that the heavier a car is, the better is will protect you in a crash or collision. This holds even more true when that crash or collision involves more than a single car.

In the decades in which the NHTSA has been crash testing cars, they’ve collected data that indicates that drivers and passengers have a greater risk of death if they’re in a vehicle that is hit with either a frontal or side impact by a heavier – or higher – car, truck or SUV.

This means most compact cars are at a distinct disadvantage from the get go, just based on physics, unless a collision involves another compact car. Collisions or wrecks with much larger cars, trucks and SUVs and compact cars usually have one “winner” – and that’s the larger car, truck or SUV.

Stripped of Safety Features?

Most of the fuel efficient cars are not simply smaller, but many of them represent the entry-level choices from automakers. While this usually isn’t the case with mid-sized cars, it isn’t uncommon to see compact cars that lack any considerable upgrades in terms of safety. Value priced means value produced, in many cases.

If you’re buying a compact or sub-compact car, or really, any car, you should look to get as many advanced safety features as possible. You’ll be safer, of course, but you’ll also get a lower-priced car insurance premium. Here’s a short list of our recommendations of these sorts of safety features:

  • Airbags. Look for advanced airbags, including head-protecting side impact air bags, curtain airbags, knee airbags for the driver.
  • All-wheel drive (AWD). All-wheel drive systems apply power from the engine to all four wheels of a car.
  • Anti-lock brakes (ABS). ABS prevents out-of-control skids. These systems best any human driver’s capabilities.
  • Collision systems. This will include things like engineered crumple zones and use of beams to brace intrusion points such as doors.
  • Electronic Stability Control (ESC). ESC will become standard equipment in all new 2012 cars sold in the United States due to congressional mandate.
  • Traction control (TC). TC will help to prevent wheel spin from environmental or driver-based conditions.

How to Get the Safest, High MPG Car

While choosing a car with the safety features we’ve listed above goes a long way towards improving the survivability in a wreck, they’re not all you should consider if you’ve decided you’re going to choose a smaller car for fuel economy.

Of course, you should consider the NHTSA’s crash ratings, but if you’d prefer a one-stop shop, a great place to start is by looking at the IIHS Top Safety Picks. The IIHS, or Insurance Institute for Highway Safety is an insurance company funded safety organization. Each year, they identify and award cars in every class as their “Top Safety Picks.” In 2011, the IIHS awarded fifteen small compacts and sub compact cars with their coveted Top Safety Picks in 2011.

Yes, you’ll trade some overall level of safety by selecting a car with high fuel economy. That doesn’t mean you have to select a patently unsafe car. Many of these small cars are filled with advanced safety features and have demonstrated they offer high survivability in collisions through crash testing.