DETROIT -- Small cars are getting safer as more models than ever earn the top safety rating from the insurance industry.
The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety said Thursday that six of the 13 small cars it most recently tested are top safety picks. They include the 2012 Ford Focus and Honda Civic and the 2011 Hyundai Elantra, Nissan Juke, Lexus CT 200h and Toyota Prius.
When those cars are combined with others previously tested -- including the electric Nissan Leaf and Chevrolet Volt -- a total of 22 earned the institute's top score.
That's a big change from the 2006 model year, when just three small cars earned the top safety rating, even though that rating was less stringent than it is now. In 1997, when the institute first put small cars through a 40-mile-per-hour frontal test, none of the 11 earned a top rating.
"Each time we've introduced a new test, automakers have stepped up and improved designs," said David Zuby, the institute's chief research officer. Zuby said companies are using stronger materials and better designs to manage the force from crashes.
To be a top safety pick, cars have to earn the highest rating on frontal-, side- and rear-impact crash tests as well as a roof strength test. They also must have electronic stability control as an available option to prevent rollover accidents.
The roof strength test, which simulates what would happen to the roof if the car rolled over, tripped up several cars in this round of testing. The 2011 Honda CR-Z, Honda Insight, Nissan Versa, Nissan Sentra, Suzuki SX4 and Dodge Caliber got lower ratings for roof strength. The Scion xD also got a lower rating in the frontal crash test.
Zuby said the Hyundai Elantra's performance shows how much vehicle design has improved. In 2001, the Elantra got the lowest scores for frontal crash protection. Among its problems was an air bag that deployed late. By 2006, it was still performing poorly, earning the lowest score in the side crash test even though it had side air bags. But the 2011 Elantra, which went on sale a few months ago, aced every test and now has standard stability control.
Zuby cautioned that larger, heavier cars will always protect occupants better than small ones. He said that's why it's extra important for manufacturers to make small cars as crashworthy as possible.