The issues of light weight and safety seem at odds. The laws of physics are clear; in a collision involving two vehicles, the larger one wins.
If a subcompact and large SUV collide, the truck comes off better. If that SUV is in a collision with a tractor trailer, the big rig comes out on top. If that rig hits a train, guess who wins? But this is only half of the equation when it comes to safety. The other, and arguably more important, part is occupant protection.
The basic rule still applies - heavier vehicles provide more protection. But I'd rather be in a tiny Smart than my dad's '61 Chevy if the two were involved in a collision.
How much does that new car cost?
All new vehicles are endowed with precisely engineered structures that absorb energy passed along to the occupants in older vehicles. They also have a myriad of devices to further reduce the forces of a crash, including airbags, collapsing steering columns, breakaway pedals, cushioned surfaces, active head restraints etc.
That older car had a slim plastic wheel with sharp edges attached to a solid column and nothing between your face and a rock-hard dash littered with protruding controls and sharp - but stylish - edges.
And let's not forget about modern three-point restraint systems that automatically tighten to pull the driver into the most advantageous position and then stretch to further reduce the forces. That old car had a single lap belt, if that.
It is wise to recall these advantages as we move toward smaller vehicles, whether due to regulations, fuel prices or economic issues.
This year marks a significant point in the North American car market - the introduction of several significant new small cars. They are not the first, joining others like the Honda Fit, Smart, Mini, but they are a sign of things to come as manufactures struggle to meet incredibly tough new emission and fuel economy regulations coming into effect next year.
In 2006, the combined car and light-truck fleet average fuel consumption was about 8.6 litres/100 km or 27 miles per gallon. Companies must improve that by more than 25 per cent by 2016 or face stiff penalties. The average fuel consumption of all vehicles sold must be at least 34.1 miles per gallon or 6.9 litres/100 km by 2016. These regulations come into effect for the 2012 model year and this is the first time light trucks have been included in the average making the task even tougher for companies that sell lots of pickups, vans and SUVs.
The U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) predicts cars will have to average 40 mpg (Imperial or Canadian) in 2012 and light trucks 9.3 litres/100 km or 30.5 miles per Imperial gallon.
So it comes as no surprise that some serious effort is going into bringing new small cars to market that will result in major improvements in the averages. The next two players in this segment will come from Ford and Mazda. They share an initial platform design but beyond that have been developed in different directions by different teams and will be built in different countries.
Both teams have been rigorous in their pursuit of reducing weight without sacrificing safety or the all-important "feel" occupants, in particular the driver, get when driving the newcomer.
Several areas came under increased scrutiny: the design and engineering of the platform itself use of a new generation of high-strength, low-weight steel, advanced safety technology and cutting every last little but of weight from each individual component.
The Mazda2 allows a great comparison. The new one tips the scales at slightly more than 1,000 kilos, which is a significant 100 kg less than the model it replaces, resulting in a 25 per cent improvement in fuel consumption. Yet the new vehicle offers even greater occupant protection.
The engineers have done their part. Now the trick will be getting more people to think small and trade in their pickups and SUVs.
What customers want: Quality, quality and quality