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Canadians searching for the safest small car possible should zero in on vehicles with "the whole package," not just good airbags and a robust roof, says David Zuby, chief research officer at the Insurance Institute of Highway Safety (IIHS).

The safest cars have a cabin engineered to prevent chunks of metal or other debris from entering and causing injury in the event of a frontal or offset crash. The safety belts snug up tight to hold occupants in place. The airbags – front, side and overhead curtain – cushion passengers from potential injuries that might result from slamming into the dashboard, interior consoles, doors and window frames. That's the whole package.

The good news is that plenty of car makers understand that safety sells. Six small cars rank as best in safety, including the plug-in hybrid Chevrolet Volt, the Volkswagen Golf and GTI and the Toyota Prius. They all have earned the Institute's Top Safety Pick+ award. Another 14 earned a Top Safety Pick.

All have what Joe Nolan, the institute's senior vice-president for vehicle research, calls "state-of-the-art safety designs." But not all small cars are created equal, and in past testing, the IIHS has found that, as a group, small cars are not a complete match safety-wise with moderately-priced mid-size cars. As a rule, bigger is better. However, the IIHS has found that small cars have tested better overall than small SUVs.

All models – regardless of body style and size – do well when car makers properly and thoroughly address structural and restraint issues – and they do poorly or perform marginally when those issues are not adequately addressed.

That is, in worst-case scenarios, safety cages collapse, driver airbags move sideways with unstable steering columns and the heads of crash-test dummies hit the instrument panel with the obvious sorrowful results. When vehicles fare poorly in crash tests, says Zuby, side curtain airbags haven't deployed at all or enough to protect occupants properly.

The IIHS has been successful in uncovering these flaws in its demanding small overlap crash test – a test designed to simulate the kind of accident that accounts for nearly a quarter of the frontal crashes involving serious or fatal injury to front-seat occupants. The test, as the IIHS notes, "replicates what happens when the front corner of a vehicle collides with another vehicle or an object such as a tree or utility pole."

Cars that ace the small overlap test can be considered the best when it comes to occupant protection. Interestingly, the six small or compact car models that have earned the IIHS's Top Safety Pick+ rating are an eclectic mix.

The Chevrolet Volt is a plug-in hybrid introduced several years ago, while the Toyota Prius is a standard gasoline-electric hybrid whose safety cage and systems are several years old. Vintage is good in these instances.

On the other hand, the Mazda3, Honda Civic and Volkswagen Golf and GTI are new designs. Nothing hybrid about any of them. Yet they, too, are Top Safety Pick+ winners.

The non-hybrids here are all priced about the same, so cost is not a factor when shopping for a safe small car. The safest small cars are not pricier than similarly sized rides suffering marginal or poor scores in IIHS testing.

Here, then, are the 20 small or compact cars that topped the safety rankings. THE IIHS designates its Top Safety Pick+ rating on vehicles that earn a Good or Acceptable rating for small overlap protection, a Good rating in the Institute's other four tests, and a Basic, Advanced or Superior rating for front crash prevention. A Top Safety Pick vehicle has earned a Good or Acceptable rating for the small overlap test and a Good rating on four other tests.

2014 Chevrolet Volt

IIHS rating: Top Safety Pick+

What the IIHS says: “Electric vehicles have a unique challenge in the small overlap test because of their heavy batteries. The Volt performed reasonably well, earning an acceptable rating, while the Leaf struggled,” said Joe Nolan, the Institute’s senior vice president for vehicle research.

Base price: $36,895, minus government incentives for Ontario and Quebec buyers.

The lowdown: The Volt is among the first mass-market plug-in hybrids. Over the years, its price has dropped. Its battery pack will give you the 25– to 40-kilometre range required for most errands without ever engaging the on-board gas engine or generator. No range anxiety with this EV or electric vehicle.

2014 Honda Civic sedan

IIHS rating: Top Safety Pick+

What the IIHS says: “Both the two-door and four-door versions of the Civic earn Good ratings for restraints and kinematics and structure. Dummy movement during the tests was well-controlled, and both cars had only minimal intrusion into the occupant compartment, so survival space for the dummy was well-maintained.”

Base price: $15,690

The lowdown: Canada’s No. 1 selling car for 16 years is an excellent choice for buyers who simply want a reliable, safe and fuel-efficient small car. The latest version is stylish – and comfortable.

Applies only to optional front crash prevention models

2014 Mazda3

IIHS rating: Top Safety Pick+

What the IIHS says: Both sedan and hatchback versions earned Good crash-worthiness ratings across the board.

Base price: $15,995

The lowdown: The Mazda3 is a sporty and stylish ride, with outstanding fuel economy and many up-market features either standard or available.

2014 Toyota Prius

IIHS rating: Top Safety Pick+

What the IIHS says: The Prius earned an Acceptable rating for crash-worthiness in the small overlap front test, though performed Good ratings otherwise.

Base price: $26,105

The lowdown: The cabin and packaging look taxi-cab rich, the ride quality is basic buggy, but the engineering is a marvel. The Prius last received a major makeover in 2009, yet it remains exceptionally safe and reliable.

2015 Volkswagen Golf/GTI

IIHS rating: Top Safety Pick+

What the IIHS says: Both earned the top pick “Good performance in each of the Institute’s crash-worthiness evaluations, including the small overlap test, and available front crash prevention. The two small cars, redesigned for 2015, offer an optional forward collision warning system that earns a basic rating.”

Base price: $19,995 (four-door Golf hatchback; $32,895 (GTI four-door hatch).

The lowdown: The Golf is a sophisticated small car, with an excellent interior, great seats and wonderful road manners. The GTI is a basic high-performance small car with a functional hatch in back. The Golf is pricier than its rivals.

2014 Dodge Dart

IIHS rating: Top Safety Pick

What the IIHS says: In two separate tests, “the Dart’s safety belts and front and side curtain airbags effectively protected the dummy’s head and upper body, and sensors in the dummy showed little risk of injury to a person in a similar real-world crash.”

Base price: $15,995

The lowdown: The Dart is a nice-looking car and it is roomy, too. It’s sold with a variety of powertrain choices and features.

Ford C-Max Hybrid

IIHS rating: Top Safety Pick

What the IIHS says: “The C-Max Hybrid, Countryman, Mitsubishi Lancer, and the Scion FR-S and its twin the Subaru BRZ qualify for Top Safety Pick …These models miss the “plus” award because they don’t have an available front crash prevention system.”

Base price: $27,499

The lowdown: This is basically a van with hinged doors, great fuel economy and a solid safety design. This Ford is among the most technologically advanced wagons you can buy. Reliability has been so-so.

2014 Ford Focus

IIHS rating: Top Safety Pick

What the IIHS says: The Focus earned as Acceptable rating for crash-worthiness in the small overlap front test, though performed to Good ratings otherwise.

Base price: $15,999

The lowdown: Ford offers both a sedan and hatchback Focus. This global small car is among the most entertaining to drive in the world. Great seats, plenty of style, too. Reliability: so-so.

2014 Honda Civic 2-door coupe

IIHS rating: Top Safety Pick

What the IIHS says: “Both the two-door and four-door versions of the Civic earn Good ratings for restraints and kinematics and structure. Dummy movement during the tests was well-controlled, and both cars had only minimal intrusion into the occupant compartment, so survival space for the dummy was well-maintained.”

Base price: $18,895

The lowdown: Why Honda offers a Civic coupe, but not a Civic hatchback is among the great mysteries of the automotive world. However, the Civic coupe is fun to drive and offers everything you get with the sedan, only with two fewer doors.

2014 Hyundai Elantra

IIHS rating: Top Safety Pick

What the IIHS says: “Good side curtain airbag coverage in the Elantra helped the car earn an acceptable rating (small overlap front test), even though the safety belt allowed the dummy to move forward 11 inches. Among vehicles in which the side curtain airbags deployed, only those in the Elantra, Civics and Scion tC offered sufficient forward coverage.”

Base price: $15,999

The lowdown: Canada’s second best-selling car is stylish and for several years has boasted a fuel efficient gasoline direct injection engine. Good value and reliable.

2014 Kia Soul

IIHS rating: Top Safety Pick

What the IIHS says: Previously rated Poor in the small overlap test, structural improvements for the 2015 model year have earned the Soul a Good rating.

Base price: $16,995

The lowdown: The Soul was reinvented for 2014 and this work pushed this tall wagon into a new place, and a very good one. The Soul has a particularly good cabin and the tall stance makes entry and exit very easy.

2014 Mini Cooper Countryman

IIHS rating: Top Safety Pick

What the IIHS says: “The Countryman’s safety cage held up reasonably well. The safety belts and airbags worked together to control the test dummy’s movement, and injury measures indicate a low risk of any significant injuries in a real-world crash this severe,” said Joe Nolan, the Institute’s senior vice president for vehicle research.

Base price: $25,500

The lowdown: The price seems a bit rich, but there is a cool factor about Mini’s SUV that is undeniable once you’ve experienced it. Comfortable enough for four and all-wheel drive is available.

Mitsubishi Lancer

IIHS rating: Top Safety Pick

What the IIHS says: Like several other models (Ford C-Max Hybrid, Scion FR-S and Subaru BRZ, Chevrolet Volt and Mini Countryman), the Lancer did well in overall testing but did not get the “plus” award for lack of an available front crash prevention system.

Base price: $14,498

The lowdown: The Lancer flies a bit under the radar in Canada, perhaps because its main rivals come from some of the biggest car companies in the world – Ford, VW, Honda, and so on. It might surprise you if you take it for a test, back-to-back with the Civic, Mazda3, Focus and the like.

Scion FR-S

IIHS rating: Top Safety Pick

What the IIHS says: The FR-S joined the Ford C-Max Hybrid, Scion FR-S and Subaru BRZ, Chevrolet Volt, Mini Countryman and Mitsubishi Lancer in achieving a solid performance overall in testing, but did not get the “plus” award for lack of an available front crash prevention system.

Base price: $26,450

The lowdown: This is a wonderfully entertaining sports car. Rear drive, long nose, short rear deck – a true sports car design. Lots of fun to drive.

(built after December 2013)

2014 Scion tC

IIHS rating: Top Safety Pick

What the IIHS says: “Toyota changed the airbag algorithm in the 2014 model tC so the curtain airbag would deploy in a small overlap crash. That helped boost the Scion’s rating. Without the change, the tC would have had a marginal rating for restraints and kinematics,” said David Zuby, the Institute’s chief research officer.

Base price: $21,490

The lowdown: This sporty Scion offers a lot for the money, but he overall two-door coupe package seems dated. But it’s safe.

Subaru BRZ

What the IIHS says: “The Scion FR-S and its twin the Subaru BRZ qualify for Top Safety Pick, the Institute’s second-highest award.”

Base price: $27,295

The lowdown: This is a mechanical and design twin of the Subaru BRZ, however, the packaging of the two models is different.

(built after December 2013)

2014 Subaru Impreza

IIHS rating: Top Safety Pick

What the IIHS says: The Impreza earned Good crash-worthiness ratings right across the board.

Base price: $19,995

The lowdown: The Impreza is standard with all-wheel drive, which separates it from most of the competition. Reliable, comfortable, safe – yes. Still not a particular looker, however.

2014 Subaru WRX

IIHS rating: Top Safety Pick

What the IIHS says: The WRX earned Good crash-worthiness ratings right across the board.

Base price: $32,495

The lowdown: A high-performance version of the Impreza, the WRX can fly.

2014 Subaru XV Crosstrek

IIHS rating: Top Safety Pick

What the IIHS says: earned Good crash-worthiness ratings right across the board.

Base price: $24,495

The lowdown: This is a tall, all-wheel drive, small SUV. You might have overlooked it, too. But if you just don’t want a small car, the Crosstrek is an interesting alternative.

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