Joshua Dowling July 26, 2012
Revealed: The budget cars that are totalled in a minor bingle.
They might be safer than ever before but some of Australia’s cheapest new cars can be an insurance write-off in the most common type of crash: a bumper-to-bumper prang.
Two top-selling hatchbacks – the Honda Jazz and Toyota Yaris, available from $14,990 – can rack up more than $13,000 in repairs in a low-speed nose-and-tail hit, or up to 90 per cent of their purchase price.That’s more than it costs to repair a $35,000 Ford Falcon sedan in the same front-and-rear smash ($9600).
The Volkswagen Polo and Mazda2 also didn’t cover themselves in glory, each racking up more than $11,000 in repairs, according to the latest NRMA Insurance study.
The city hatch from Korean car maker Hyundai clocks up a bill in excess of $9000 in a typical fender bender – dearer than the Suzuki Swift ($8900), Ford Fiesta ($8850) and Nissan Micra ($6055).
By comparison, of those tested, the cheapest to fix after a minor bingle front and rear is the new generation Holden Barina – with a bill of $2574.
The vast difference in overall repair costs is attributed to parts prices – and the number of parts damaged during low-speed impacts.
For example, the Holden Barina has cheaper parts prices and doesn’t incur much damage in a low-speed hit, whereas the Honda Jazz has dearer parts prices and incurs more damage in the same impact.
The $11,000 difference between the Honda Jazz and the Holden Barina repair costs makes the Barina up to $300 cheaper in the NRMA’s annual insurance premiums for young drivers and $160 cheaper for older drivers, according to examples researched online by Drive.
It is unclear whether other insurers (who do not conduct the same crash tests) will mirror the reduction in insurance premiums for cars that performed comparatively well in the assessment.
The crash repair estimates come from NRMA Insurance analysis of low-speed impacts, which account for more than 70 per cent of all car insurance claims.
“These are safe cars but they shouldn’t be write-offs in jogging pace collisions,” says NRMA Insurance research manager Robert McDonald.
Improvements in technology have made small cars safer, but also more expensive to fix.
“There’s more technology to protect and, as a result, the repair costs can be quite high from a relatively small bump,” McDonald says.
“But the Holden Barina proves it is possible for a small car to tick all the boxes: five-star safety, vehicle affordability and cheaper repair costs.”
NRMA Insurance calculates repair costs after ramming cars into a bumper-like barrier at 10km/h. It is the same standard used in Germany, North America, Japan and the UK.
Most new cars have an absorption beam behind the front bumper – designed to soften the impact – but tests show some are more effective than others at deflecting damage.
The study also found not all new small cars have a rear bumper absorption beam.
Some cars sold in Australia have had their rear bumper absorption beams deleted by manufacturers to cut costs – even though the same cars in Europe have them fitted as standard.
“We have seen some instances where car makers have removed bumper beams on Australian-delivered cars,” McDonald says. “But the customer potentially ends up paying more [in premiums] because the cars are dearer to repair.”
The hidden absorption beams would cost manufacturers “less than $5”, McDonald estimates, but their removal potentially adds hundreds of dollars to insurance premiums.
“It’s a short-sighted move because it’s not in the car manufacturer’s interest to cut corners like this. If the car is a write-off, it won’t be repaired. Instead it will be broken down for parts and disappear from the marketplace,” he says.
“Normally, a car would go through the hands of two or three owners over 10 years. And that’s 10 years of being able to supply parts and service to that vehicle.”
The Honda Jazz, Suzuki Swift and Toyota Yaris do not have rear bumper beams in Australia even though they have them overseas, the insurer says.
The Ford Fiesta, now sourced from Thailand rather than Europe, has a foam section behind the rear bumper rather than a metal beam.
Mazda deleted the rear bumper absorption beam on its Mazda2 small car when production switched to Thailand – and did not initially refit it when Mazda2 production reverted to Japan.
But after feedback from the insurance industry the Mazda2’s rear bumper beam has been reintroduced on cars sold here.
There is no Australian regulation covering bumper absorption beams but the insurance industry has come up with a default standard after five years of international research into real-world crashes.
However, the bumper test is used by central ratings agencies in Germany and the UK, who set crash repair cost estimates for all insurance companies.
One of the reasons the Holden Barina performs so well in the 10km/h crash tests is because the front and rear bumper beams line up exactly with the bumper-like barrier used in the insurer’s assessment.
The front bumper beams in the Honda Jazz and Toyota Yaris, by comparison, don’t exactly align with the barrier used in the test.
Furthermore, the Honda’s absorption beam slips under the bumper-like shield because it is deliberately angled to achieve a better pedestrian protection rating.
A statement from Toyota Australia said in part: "The information released ... is the result of a one-off test that is not part of any international standard or governed by a recognised regulatory authority [and] is not an indicator of vehicle safety features.
"Nor is it a reliable measure of a vehicle's crash worthiness. Even small changes in the mechanics of a collision can substantially alter the result, including the cost of repair.
"In the pursuit of real world safety ... Toyota conducts thousands of collision tests every year."
Honda Australia declined to comment on the findings.
NRMA Insurance says it is possible to perform well in both pedestrian protection and crash repair tests.
“It’s not a case of choosing one or the other, low repair costs or pedestrian safety,” says McDonald. “It is possible to get a good pedestrian protection score as well as a good low-speed impact score, but it takes engineering time and effort.”
Both the Holden Barina and Honda Jazz earned an “acceptable” pedestrian protection rating in ANCAP crash testing – and five-stars for occupant protection.