If an ever-increasing list of accolades for the Chevrolet Volt's design, function, and engineering haven’t been enough, the car has achieved yet another honorary nod of recognition, this time in the area of safety.

Yesterday, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) announced results from its first-ever U.S. crash evaluations of plug-in electric cars, and both the Volt and Nissan LEAF earned the top rating of “good” for front, side, rear, and rollover crash protection.

As a result of their ranking, the IIHS bestowed on the Volt and LEAF its TOP SAFETY PICK award for state-of-the-art crash protection.


This perfectly good Chevrolet Volt is about to be sacrificed frontally into a solid wall in the name of safety research.

It turns out there is a secondary benefit to the extra heft from their lithium-ion battery packs, as both "small" cars were shown to have crash resistance approaching a larger car, and scored well within standards for their size.

"The LEAF and Volt's extra mass gives them a safety advantage over other small cars," said Joe Nolan, the Institute’s chief administrative officer. “These electric models are a win-win for fuel economy and safety."

The LEAF weighs about 3,370 pounds which exceeds Nissan's approximately 3,200-pound midsize Altima. The Volt weighs about 3,760 pounds and likewise, it exceeds Chevrolet's approximately 3,580-pound, large-class Impala.


The insurance industry's advocacy and research arm wants to know what it is insuring. So, out-doing the government, it runs only the driver's half of the car into a barrier at 5 mph more speed to really focus that kinetic energy into the dummy.

"The way an electric or hybrid model earns top crash test ratings is the same way any other car does," Nolan said, "Its structure must manage crash damage so the occupant compartment stays intact and the safety belts and airbags keep people from hitting hard surfaces in and out of the vehicle."

This year, General Motors’ tally of winners of the TOP SAFETY PICK award now totals 12 models and Nissan has three. Including the Chevrolet and Nissan electric cars and seven hybrids, a total of 80 cars have won in 2011.


The dummy struck the airbag with its head and the lower dash with its knees (note grease paint smudges from impact).

“What powers the wheels is different, but the level of safety for the Volt and LEAF is as high as any of our other top crash test performers,” Nolan said.

We called IIHS spokesman, Russ Rader, yesterday to see if there was anything he could add, and there was. He said the IIHS tests are done over and above federal crash tests and present a tougher standard.

“Our tests are designed to push the envelope beyond what the government is requiring,” Rader said, “For example, the frontal offset tests that the Institute does is more challenging for the structure of the vehicle than the government’s test.”


Another sacrificial Volt. This one will be for the side impact test.

How so?

“Our frontal test is a 40 mph offset test that concentrates the energy of the crash on the driver’s side,” Rader said, “The government’s 35 mph frontal test is a full-width test so it’s less challenging for the structure of the vehicle.”

He said the side impact tests are tougher too.


This smash equals the kinetic energy of an SUV or pickup truck.

“The side impact test that we do simulates a SUV or pickup truck striking the car from the side,” Rader said, “The government just updated their procedures with the new test. The first test they do for side impact protection uses a barrier that represents another car hitting the test vehicle on the side, so it’s not representing the mix of vehicles that are out in the real world.”

He added that the IIHS has no plans to test the Prius Plug-in Hybrid or other electric cars until they are on the open market.

For now, the Volt and LEAF stand in stark contrast to other electric cars it has informally tested. Although the GEM e2 and Wheego Whip are not required to undergo federal crash testing, the IIHS proactively subjected them to side barrier tests “for research purposes only.”


This is the dummy inside the side-swiped car post impact. Note grease paint stains to show where the body struck the inside of the car.

This research subsequently caused the IIHS to politely say the evolved golf carts were tantamount to death traps.

“Crash test dummies in the GEM and Wheego recorded data suggesting severe or fatal injuries to real drivers,” said the IIHS. “The GEM and Whip belong to a class of golf cart-like vehicles that aren’t required to meet the same federal safety standards as passenger vehicles. Although growing in popularity, these tiny electrics aren’t designed to mix with regular traffic.”

But mix with traffic they nevertheless do.


An unfortunately destroyed Volt. The positive aspect is the safety structure did its job.

And while we’re on the topic, a couple days ago, Polaris Industries, Inc. announced that in six weeks it will close a deal to purchase Global Electric Motorcars LLC (GEM). Presently it is a wholly owned Fargo, N.D. based subsidiary of Chrysler Group LLC.

“GEM is the recognized leader within the low-speed vehicle market, with a well-respected brand and approximately $30 million in sales during the 2010 calendar year,” Polaris said, “Since the company was established in 1998, they have placed over 45,000 electric-powered vehicles on the road worldwide.”

A lot of these sales were to corporate and government fleets, as well as private citizens in areas where they can be legally driven.


The IIHS essentially said these cars do not hold a candle to the Volt and LEAF. The Chevrolet and Nissan were engineered at great expense to pioneer mainstream electric transportation, and it seems clear their manufacturers hit a home run first time up to bat.

Nolan warned drivers concerned about safety to steer clear of what the IIHS considers unsafe vehicles, while recommending the Nissan and Chevrolet.

"Eco-minded drivers keen on switching to electric would do well to buy a LEAF or Volt for highway driving instead of a low-speed vehicle if they're at all concerned about being protected in a crash," Nolan said.