2011 Nissan Juke front offset crash test

After completing a new round of testing on 13 small cars, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety confidently recommends models that are both Top Safety Picks and average a minimum of 40 mpg on the highway on at least one trim level.

“The ratings are based on performance in front, side, rollover, and rear impact evaluations. Cars that earn the top rating of good in each test and have available electronic stability control (ESC) qualify for Top Safety Pick,” writes the IIHS. “Winners are the 2012 Ford Focus and Honda Civic, along with the 2011 Hyundai Elantra, Lexus CT 200h hybrid, Nissan Juke, and Toyota Prius hybrid.”

Of these, the Juke is the only model that doesn’t offer a trim that gets at least 40 mpg on the highway. In all, the IIHS has named 22 small cars Top Safety Picks, but it took years for the automotive industry to reach that point. The Institute explains that it started naming vehicles Top Safety Picks in 2006, but its crash test criteria wasn’t as strict. Then, only three small cars received the award: the Honda Civic, the Saab 9-2X and the Subaru Impreza. Now, despite tougher requirements, that number has increased by 19 vehicles. Under the IIHS’ new safety guidelines, vehicles must have electronic stability control (ESC), a feature the Institute says “reduces fatal single-vehicle crashes by up to 50 percent.” ESC will be a government-mandated feature beginning with 2012 models. 

In its press release issued on Thursday, the IIHS highlights the Hyundai Elantra as a small car that has come a long way. Elantras from the 2001 to 2003 model years received the lowest score of poor in front crash tests. Elantras from 2011 to 2006 received a poor side rating, and didn’t offer standard ESC. But, nearly 11 years later, the Elantra receives a top score of good in front, side, rollover and rear impact crash tests and has standard ESC.

"The Elantra has gone from one of our lowest rated small cars to a Top Safety Pick, and ESC is now a standard feature," says David Zuby, the IIHS’ chief research officer. "The big things the automakers have done to improve crashworthiness are designing better front crush zones to manage crash energy, stronger occupant compartments to limit intrusion, and stronger roofs to better protect people in rollovers."

If you’re in the market for a small car with high fuel economy ratings and high crash test scores, start with the IIHS’ list of Top Safety Picks. It’s a diverse list that offers at least one small car for every shopper, regardless of the market. The Lexus CT 200h, for example, is the only upscale small car on this list. According to the EPA, it gets 43/40 mpg city/highway and starts at $29,120. But, if you need a vehicle that’s less expensive but offers upscale amenities, the Hyundai Elantra is a good option. It starts at $14,945, and like the CT 200h, it averages 40 mpg on the highway, but gets a lower 29 mpg in the city. The Elantra can be fully equipped with navigation and heated leather seats in the front and back for $22,295. Heated leather seats aren’t standard on the CT 200h, and this feature isn’t available for the back row.

Also on this list are two completely redesigned models for the 2012 model year: the Ford Focus, which is available as a hatchback, and the Honda Civic. Both of these models don’t get a standard 40 mpg on the highway, but you can opt for the Honda Civic High Fuel-Efficiency model, which averages 29/41 mpg city/highway, and the Focus SFE, which gets 28/40 mpg city highway.

But, if you simply want a hybrid with outstanding fuel economy and don’t mind a 98 horsepower engine, the Toyota Prius is the best option. It’s one of the roomiest midsize hybrids on the market, starts at $23,520 and gets 51/48 mpg city/highway.

Perhaps the most important thing to glean from the IIHS’ Top Safety Picks is that it’s possible to get a small car that will not only fit your budget, but get you where you need to go efficiently.

Shopping for a fuel-efficient and safe affordable small car? Check out the U.S. News rankings of this year's best cars. Then, look for a great deal on a new car by checking out this month’s best car deals. Also, be sure to follow us on Twitter.