Let’s look at the physics of the issue to get a hook on it. Any laws of physics you care to think about that involve large versus small, weight versus weight, inertial mass versus inertial mass, show just one thing big usually wins over small, unless the small is quick enough to zip out of the way of the large. In that case, the laws just don’t apply.
But, after looking at the current crop of microcars – which are certainly needed and welcomed additions to the vehicle fleet because they WILL help cut the use of fuel and help us lessen our dependence on foreign fuel sources – and the rest of the vehicular fleet, you begin to worry about which vehicles will be vulnerable in accidents and, truth to tell, the microcars just won’t stand up.
It’s true they have all of the great safety features that have shown up in the last 20 years – sideguard beams to limit side penetration, integral rollcages to keep roofs from crushing down in rollovers, multiposition airbag and curtain airbags as well as chassis that feature controlled deformation – but there’s not doubting the fact that a 4,500-pound Tahoe will flatten a Fiat 500 or Mazda 2. Why, even the Chevy Cobalt – even an autowriter needs a car for days between test rides – that sits in our driveway will win in a collision with any of these vehicles and our Cobalt is not the biggest subcompact in the world.
But, note that I said subcompact, not microcar. A microcar – unless it is built like a tank – just isn’t up to the task of protecting your family in a major accident.
Let’s look at one example from my childhood to prove a point. We were visiting friends out of state when this other driver decides that redlights are an inconvenience for her and she just happened, at the same time, to be yelling at her brood in the back seat. So, there’s the typical setup for disaster. We were driving a vehicle – at the time – that was a small car, a Rambler American and the car that T-boned us in the intersection was a huge Ford Fairlane. We were not only outweighed by over 1,000 pounds, the sheer speed with which she slammed us threw my Dad across my Mom in the front seat – doubtless saving her life as she would likely have been launched who knows where if Dad hadn’t landed on her and my younger brother and I were bounced around the rear seat like stuffed dolls. (Funny thing about this accident, the other driver kept on asking my Dad why he hit her and what he was doing in the middle of the intersection when she wanted to drive through. It was as if she owned the intersection and how dare we think that a green light meant you can go?)
The little American took the brunt of the accident and was totaled as it never would roll right again, while the big Ford looked a lot less for the wear. We spent the day at the hospital until the oldest one of my brothers came up to get us in our other car (We had to drop the seatback on the Rambler Custom VI that my brother drove and she slept all the way back, while Dad, my younger brother and I scrunched into a very tiny space. Well, I will say that things worked out well for my family as we were banged and bruised but we all recovered and the other driver turned out to be three sheets to the wind, anyway, and lost her license and insurance – there is justice in the universe – but our tiny American was off to the junkyard).
This is what I think may happen in this rapidly changing automotive environment as more and more cars become less and less in stature. I guess that when we are all driving microcars (at $4 to $5 per gallon for gas that won’t take long), it won’t be that great an issue, but until then. Use your basic defensive driving skill, rely on the Fiat 500 and cohorts to be nimble and you’re likely to be okay, or not, depending on the mismatch.