2009 Nissan Cube (Nissan)

What Car?

Crash safety: does size matter?

Special to The Globe and Mail

Michael and Jeremy:

I want to downsize to a smaller car. I drive an older Buick Regal now, but as I said, it's getting older.

I want fuel economy and easier parking, but I still feel safer in something big. Little cars look like little death traps to me. Am I crazy?

What should I do?


Vaughan: Cato likes big cars; he needs the space. But not me. I've been driving small cars my whole life and I have never felt unsafe.

Cato: Whoa, whoa. The laws of physics apply, even if you are in denial - even if you can't recall that apple hitting your noggin while Newton was watching.

What matters to Janice is that when a bigger vehicle meets a smaller one, all things being equal, the bigger one wins.

Vaughan: Yes, Cato, but you're being alarmist - worrying Janice unnecessarily. Janice has plenty of safe small-car choices.

Cato: I agree. But as I said, all things being equal, big is safer than small.

Now that I've made my point, let's move on. I am looking at a list of five small vehicles with impressive crash-test scores and loads of advanced technology. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety says these are the safest small cars of 2010.

Vaughan: Janice, the institute is the research arm of the American insurance lobby. But just because a lobby group is involved, don't be misled into thinking they're cooking the data here. On the contrary, these people do great work - reliable and tough testing.

Cato: And unlike the Canadian Government, the institute actually publicizes its crash test results - picking winners and losers.

Transport Canada? It crash tests cars, but keeps the results secret. Personally, I like to see my tax dollars at work in a more visible way.

Vaughan: How untrusting of you, Cato.

I'm sure that whatever it is they're doing behind closed doors with our tax money is just wonderful. Besides, you know how Stephen Harper hates freedom of information. So we shall deal contentedly with the institute whose results are public.

Cato: Right. The IIHS rates vehicles good, acceptable, marginal or poor, based on front and side crash tests and a rollover test.

On top of that, these people look at seat and head restraints for whiplash protection.

The list of five earned good scores in all areas.

Vaughan: The five are: the four-door Honda Civic, Kia Soul, Nissan Cube, Subaru Impreza and Volkswagen Golf.

Cato: Let me just go back to the laws of physics. Yes, a small car will crumple in a crash with a big SUV, but as one safety engineer once told me, the best crash is the one that never happens.

Vaughan: That is a good point.

Cato: Anti-skid systems and anti-lock brakes are available on these small cars to help drivers avoid crashes - to help them maintain control if the roads are slick or if the driver is in over his or her head, going too fast for the skill level and conditions.

Vaughan: High-tech crash avoidance systems help to level the safety playing field for small cars.

Cato: So Janice, any one of these five would be a good, safe choice. But I'd start with test driving the Golf, Impreza and Kia Soul. The Soul is kind of funky looking, yet it delivers an excellent safety score.

Vaughan: Janice, you really should take the time to drive all five, but the car at the top of this list for me is the Golf.

Cato: The Golf really has hit the sweet spot; it's a useful, comfortable, nice-looking hatchback with lots of features. The 2010 model is all-new and what VW has done here has really caught on with buyers. The Golf actually managed to sneak into the top-10 best-selling passenger cars in January.

Vaughan: But I wish VW had a version under 20 grand.

Cato: This is not something that has VW worried.

I was there when VW Canada president John White listened to your complaint on this point and I laughed when he shrugged his shoulders and said, "Sorry, Michael, we don't really have a version (of the Golf) for you." He meant a Golf cheap enough.

But my favourite on the list is the Subaru Impreza. It's the only small car here with standard all-wheel-drive. This is the small car I would get.

Vaughan: The Soul is pretty daring; a boxy design that comes in bold colours and with a loud stereo, if that's what you want.

Cato: If you're going small, Janice, these five are the safest in the business.

Jeremy Cato and Michael Vaughan are co-hosts of Car/Business, which appears Fridays at 8 p.m. on Business News Network and Saturdays at 2 p.m. on CTV.


2010 VW Golf Trendline hatchback

2010 Subaru Impreza 2.5i hatchback

2010 Kia Soul (base model)

Wheelbase (mm)




Length (mm)




Width (mm)




Track (mm)

1,541 front1,514 rear

1,495 front1,495 rear

1,570 front1,575 rear


2.5-litre, five-cylinder

2.5-litre, four-cylinder

1.6-litre, four-cylinder

Output (hp) (torque)

170 hp177 lb-ft

170 hp170 lb-ft

122 hp115 lb-ft


Five-speed manual

Five-speed manual

Five-speed manual

Drive system




Curb weight (kg)




Fuel economy (litres/100 km)

10.4 city7.0 highway

10.6 city7.5 highway

7.7 city6.3 highway

Base price