Tiny Fiat 500 earns 'Top Safety Pick' award

October 18, 2011: 2:02 PM ET

NEW YORK (CNNMoney) -- The Fiat 500, an ultra-tiny minicar sold by Chrysler dealers, has earned a "Top Safety Pick Award" from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

To earn the award, a vehicle has to get top scores in both front and side impact tests as well as for rear-impact whiplash protection. It has also has to be available with electronic stability control, a computerized system that helps drivers maintain control during abrupt maneuvers.

In this case, the award applies only to 500s manufactured after July 2011. These cars have a new, redesigned driver's seat that provides better protection than the ones in 500s made before that, the Institute said.

The Ford Fiesta is the only other car in the 500's "minicar" class to earn the award, although several slightly larger "compact" cars have earned it.

The award doesn't mean the 500 is just as safe as a larger car, however. Front crash tests like the ones performed by the Insurance Institute -- in which the car is crashed at 40 miles per hour into an immovable barrier -- mimic the impact of a car crashing into another vehicle of the same size and weight.

With a car as small as the 500, a crash with a larger vehicle is much more likely. In 2009, the Insurance Institute tested several small cars in impacts with mid-size cars. The tests essentially mimicked the same sort of crash as the barrier test, except with a larger car.

In those tests, even award-winning small cars like the Honda Fit and Toyota Yaris performed poorly. The problem is that, when a heavier object meets a lighter one, the lighter one will be subject to more abrupt and jarring movements that can cause serious harm.

"The laws of physics still apply and a smaller vehicle that earns a 'Top Safety Pick' is still not as safe as a large vehicle with the same ratings," Insurance Institute spokesman Russ Rader said.

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But, if a car shopper is intent on buying a small car because that fits their needs, said Rader, it's all the more important to look for one that gets good crash test scores. That way, the car can be as safe as possible.

The Insurance Institute is a private group financed by auto insurers. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which puts cars through a different set of crash tests for the federal government, has not yet rated the 500. To top of page

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