Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Smart car does well in IIHS tests...with caveats

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) announced the results of its Smart Fortwo crash tests today. The car earned a good rating (the highest score) in both the 40 mph frontal offset test into a stationary deformable barrier and the side-impact test where the driver's side of the car is hit by a simulated pickup or SUV moving at 31 mph. In the test for rear crash protection, the seat/head restraints of the car earned the second highest rating of Acceptable.

However as Adrian Lund, president of the Institute stated, "All things being equal in safety, bigger and heavier is always better. But among the smallest cars, the engineers of the Smart did their homework and designed a high level of safety into a very small package." The Institute's test results generally show how well vehicles compare against others of similar size and weight. Frontal ratings can't be compared across weight classes, which means a small car that earns a good rating isn't necessarily safer on the road than a large car that's not rated as highly in the test.

The Smart has a very short "crumple zone" ahead of the occupant compartment, which means the seat belts and airbags must take a bigger share of the load in protecting the driver and passenger in a frontal crash. In fact, the head of the driver dummy hit the steering wheel through the airbag with enough force to indicate the possibility of head injury.

In the side-impact test, all forces recorded on the driver dummy were low, indicating little risk of injury. The car has standard head/torso side airbags, which pop out of the seat during severe side impacts to cushion the head and chest. However, just as in the NHTSA side impact test, the driver door unlatched, posing the risk of partial or complete occupant ejection, especially if the seat belt isn't used. The structure was therefore downgraded to an acceptable rating.

The entire IIHS press release can be found here. A more humorous take entitled "Smart Deemed Safe. Kinda." was posted in The Truth About Cars.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Friends don't let Smart!

The tiny Smart Fortwo is all the rage now that gas prices are closing in on $4 per gallon for regular unleaded in many parts of the US. As you can see, the Smart takes up only about half the space of my 2004 Toyota Camry, a typical modern-day midsize car. The Smart holds only two passengers in relative comfort (there is no rear seat), but there is a fair amount of space behind the front seats to hold cargo.

However, the car didn't do so well in the NHTSA frontal crash tests, with only a 3-star rating for the front passenger (and a 4-star rating for the driver). Almost every car today earns 4 or 5 stars in the frontal test, so 3 stars isn't particularly encouraging. In the NHTSA side impact test, the car earned the maximum of 5 stars, but the driver door unlatched, which increases the possibility of partial or complete occupant ejection if the seat belt is not used.

The car has a rear-mounted 1.0-liter 3-cylinder engine, and is rated by the EPA to achieve 33 mpg in city driving and 41 mpg on the highway. However, premium gas must be used (regular unleaded is allowed only in an emergency, and even then, the tank should only be partially filled). The car weighs only about 1800 lbs and is only 106 inches long, shorter than the wheelbase (front to rear wheel centers) on the Camry!

The Camry, by contrast, holds 5 people in comfort plus has a very roomy trunk. It is 189 inches long and weighs 3142 pounds, with a wheelbase of 107 inches. The 4-cylinder model was originally rated at 23/32 mpg for city/highway driving (since lowered to 20/29 mpg according to the new rules for calculating mileage). However, my mileage is much closer to the EPA's original estimates, and on long highway trips, I achieve a bona fide 35 to 38 mpg. Even in my normal day-to-day commuting, I've been averaging about 28 mpg lately.

In the tougher Insurance Institute for Highway Safety crash tests, the 2004 Camry was rated Good (the highest score) in both the frontal offset and side impact crash tests, the latter when the car was equipped with optional side airbags, as mine has. (The side airbags became standard beginning with 2007 models.)

The Smart is slow to accelerate, and one of its most annoying features according to many reviewers is its automated manual transmission. This is basically a manual transmission that shifts for itself (there is no clutch pedal). The problem is that each shift occurs in a herky-jerky fashion, with the result that occupants' heads and necks are thrown back and forth. Apparently, you can smooth out the shifts by trying to anticipate when a shift will occur by lifting off the gas pedal. This can be hard to predict when a tachometer is not standard equipment and if you aren't familiar with driving a car with a manual transmission!

It seems the best use for this car is in congested city centers where parking is very tight. In New York City, for example, many Manhattan streets have no meters or marked spaces, so if you can squeeze your car in, you're fine (just remember to move it when it's time for street cleaning).

Better small car choices, which offer seating for four or five are the Honda Fit, Toyota Yaris, Nissan Versa, or even the Mini Cooper. If getting the highest possible gas mileage is your priority, then a Toyota Prius is the hands-down winner, with city/highway ratings of 48/45 mpg, on regular gas.

Here are two articles from on the Smart, one from Karl Brauer, editor-in-chief, on the day-to-day foibles of the car and the other from Lee Scott of the "Strategies for Smart Car Buyers" blog on the safety issue.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Tragic death of a teenager

Sydney Aichs, a 16-year-old local high school student, died at the scene early on Friday, May 9 when a tractor-trailer broadsided her car as she made a left turn onto US Route 29 on a green light from the road leading out of her subdivision. She was on her way to school. There had been a heavy rain the night before, and the roads were still damp. As you can
see from the photos above, the northbound lanes of the highway head down a steep hill and then upward at the traffic light for the "T" intersection on the right. The speed limit on US 29 is 55 mph. As trucks come barreling down the hill, it is difficult for them to stop when the light turns red (or their drivers choose not to stop because of the amount of energy needed to get going again on the steep upgrade at the light). The latter seems to be the case here, as police said their investigation will be reviewed by the commonwealth’s attorney to determine if the truck driver should be charged.

This intersection, constructed about 12-13 years ago, was poorly designed. As one commenter noted on a local website, "This is so awful. Please, let’s find a way to make the state fix this intersection." Another said, "The intersection at FL [Forest Lakes] South should have never been approved until either VDOT or the developers did something about leveling out the road on either side of it. Any reasonable person looking at the traffic history there since would surely agree that not only was it a poor decision, but the state (VDOT) has been negligent by not addressing this problem area sooner. Now we’ve lost a life as a result. How much longer?"

Indeed. This is the first death I'm aware of here, but crashes at this intersection or at the the northbound or southbound approaches to it seem to be an almost daily occurrence. On the following Monday afternoon, I had to detour around the location because of stopped traffic and flashing lights from police cars in the distance.