WASHINGTON -- Automakers are improving the safety of small cars, crash tests show.
The data come as automakers build more and more small cars with designs and technology aimed at capturing consumers who want top fuel savings and lower emissions.
The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, a group backed by insurance companies, reported Thursday that six of the 13 small cars it evaluated earned top crash safety marks, a turnaround from a few years ago, when the class broadly underperformed.
Still, David Zuby, the institute's chief research officer, said smaller cars do not protect crash occupants as well as larger vehicles, even though the new ratings show smaller cars are much safer than they used to be.
"Even though fuel prices sometimes defy gravity, the laws of physics always are in effect for cars," he said. "That's why it is important that the crashworthiness designs of smaller cars be as good as possible."
The insurance group gave top safety marks to two 2012 models -- the Ford Motor Co. Focus and the Honda Motor Co. Civic.
Four 2011 vehicles achieved the highest rating: the Hyundai Motor Elantra, the Lexus CT 200h hybrid made by Toyota Motor Corp., the Nissan Motor Co. Juke, and Toyota's Prius hybrid.
Small cars used to have the least safety equipment. Now, all have standard side air bags and most have standard stability control systems aimed at reducing rollover risk.
Smaller cars also are designed with improved front crush zones to better manage crash energy, stronger passenger compartments, and sturdier roofs.