Why crash tests, insurance rates don't always match

By Des Toups,

Shutterstock photo

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) has singled out six small cars that scored well and six that didn't in its tough new crash test, which mimics a collision between the front corner of the car and a tree or light pole.

The 2013 Honda Civic coupe and sedan earned a "Good" rating in what is known as the small-overlap test; the 2013 Dodge Dart, 2013 Ford Focus, 2013 Hyundai Elantra and 2014 Scion tC earned "Acceptable" ratings. The IIHS, an industry-supported nonprofit , says the results, combined with marks from previous side-impact, rollover and front-impact tests, win these models a "Top Safety Pick +" designation. (See all IIHS ratings here .)

The six other small cars had scored well on previous tests -- enough to win a "Top Safety Pick" designation -- but encountered structural problems or had issues with airbag deployment in the new small-offset test, says David Zuby, IIHS chief research officer.

The 2013 Chevrolet Sonic and Cruze and 2013 Volkswagen Beetle were rated "Marginal;" the 2013 Nissan Sentra, 2013 Kia Soul and 2014 Kia Forte were rated "Poor."

Great crash-test ratings are a critical component to affordable car insurance premiums -- after all, a car that frequently left its passengers injured or worse would soon be the subject of an outsized number of expensive injury claims. Yet the safest car is not always the cheapest to insure.

Comparing apples-to-apples car insurance premiums, the small cars that scored the best in the most recent IIHS tests actually cost more to insure than those that scored poorly. According to data gathered by Quadrant Information Services, the national average rate for full coverage on the top-ranked 2013 Honda Civic LX two-door would be $1,422 a year. The same coverage on the 2013 Chevrolet Cruze LS would be $1,282. (Comparable rates for the other models fell in between the two.)

Injury claims represent only one of dozens of factors that eventually go into insurance rates. The differences between cars are just as likely to be things that have nothing to do with safety: the purchase price of the car may be higher, for example. It may be stolen more. Its buyers may skew slightly younger or live in more urbanized areas.

In the end, when it comes to the rates you pay, the driver almost always matters more than the car. (See " Are safer cars cheaper to insure? ") We look at crash tests as a way of weeding vehicles that are unacceptable from your shopping list. The cost of insurance, on the other hand, is more of a tiebreaker when choosing among the safest cars.

We understand the impulse to pay as little as possible for insurance. But don't let a small difference -- smaller than the cost of a sunroof or leather seats -- put you behind the wheel of a car that's less safe.

The views and opinions expressed herein are the views and opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Nasdaq, Inc.

This article appears in: Personal Finance Insurance
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