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On the market for a new car? Tempted to trade in for a smaller model to save on gas? In this time of high gas prices and lots of media attention on making the move towards environmentally-friendly cars, small cars can seem pretty attractive. Or maybe it’s a question of style—the look of a VW Bug or a Mini Cooper—appeals to you. Yet sometimes it seems that marketing focused on environmental concerns and lifestyle has overtaken a more central concern when purchasing a car: safety.

The fact is that smaller cars are generally less safe than larger cars. When you eliminate pickup trucks from the equation, data from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety shows that overall, the fatality rate for small cars is the highest of any car class. There are a couple of explanations for this difference. First, is the obvious one: small cars are small. They weigh less than other cars on the road and there is less space to absorb an impact. This means that when a small car collides with a bigger, heavier object the small car isn’t going to fare as well. Until everyone on the road is driving Smart Cars, this safety limitation of small cars will continue to exist.

The other explanation is that small cars often don’t come equipped with the same safety features as larger cars. And here it is important to remember that not all small cars are created equally. And if you’re really set on having that fuel-efficient, compact vehicle, you need to do your homework to find out how safe that specific model is.

Both the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and IIHS have brochures to help car buyers know what to look for and to understand safety ratings. One tip is to look further than just the star-rating. Comparing a 5-star small car to a 5-star sedan is like comparing apples to oranges—because when cars are tested, they are compared to other cars of the same size. So, what do you need to be looking for? The small car that has the most safety features—such as stability control and side-impact airbags.

Sometimes in the excitement of buying a car, it’s easy to get caught up in the aesthetic features or the fuel efficiency or the model’s long-term dependability or even just the purchase price itself. But while weighing all of these concerns, don’t lose sight of the fact that safety deserves to be a priority. None of those other considerations are going to matter when a collision happens.

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