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The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety wrapped up another exciting year of crash testing and recently released their results for the small car category. Yes, these folks spend their days smashing cars to see how much protection they’ll offer in real-world accidents. Is that a cool job or what?

They give each model a rating for the protection it offers in front, side, and rear-impact collisions. But what’s even more interesting is the technology built into the car that can help avoid a collision all together.

It’s called Electronic Stability Control (ESC), and if you’ve heard of it, you might just be a car geek (like us). According to the institute, ESC is the probably the best technology to avoid a crash, but also one of the least familiar to drivers.

“It’s the most important safety feature people haven’t heard of,” institute spokesman Russ Rader said. “It is a feature that can literally keep you out of a crash.”

The system works by monitoring the movement of the steering wheel and matching it up with the direction the car is going. If they’re different, the system kicks in automatically and brakes individual wheels. In some models the system also reduces the throttle to bring a vehicle back into line of travel.

“It helps prevent some of the spinout and loss of control in crashes that lead to death,” Rader said.

So what cars come with ESC, and also offer a “good” grade in the three crash-tested categories? The 2009 Honda Civic four-door (except the Si model), Mitsubishi Lancer, Toyota Corolla, Scion xB, Subaru Impreza and Volkswagen Rabbit four-door.

Here’s how other small cars fared in the institute’s testing:


Vehicle

Front evaluation

Side evaluation

Rear crash protection

ESC

Suzuki SX4

Good

Good

Marginal

Optional

Toyota Matrix/Pontiac Vibe

Good

Good

Not tested

Opt. Matrix, Standard Vibe

Ford Focus

Good

Acceptable

Good

Optional (2009)

Chevrolet HHR

Good

Acceptable

Marginal

Standard (2009)

Hyundai Elantra

Good

Marginal

Acceptable

Optional

Saturn Astra

Good

Marginal

Acceptable

Optional

Chrysler PT Cruiser

Good

Poor

Poor

Unavailable