The Small Car Catch-22

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Little cars that don’t costs much to buy – or to drive – are making a comeback. The 2014 Mitsubishi Mirage I just reviewed, for instance (see here). It’s equipped with a tiny but extremely fuel-efficient three-cylinder engine capable of returning mid-40s on the highway – and high 30s around town. That’s almost as good as a diesel (or hybrid). The Mirage only costs about $13k, sticker, too.

But, there’s a catch.

A Catch-22, actually.

Mitsubishi – like all car manufacturers – must build every car it makes to government spec. That means multiple air bags – seven, in the case of the ’14 Mirage. Some are required directly in that every new car must by law have at least a driver and front seat passenger air bag. Others are required in an indirect way, via government crashworthiness requirements.

For a very small – and very light – car like the Mirage (which weighs just over 1,800 pounds) to be deemed “safe” as government defines it, a plethora of air bags is necessary. Side-impact bags, for both rows – plus a knee air bag for the driver (see technical specs here).

What happens when they deploy?

Keep in mind that the Mirage is a car with a sticker price, brand new – around $13,000. Two or three years old, it will have a book value in the $8,000 or so range. Most insurance adjusters will declare a car a total loss – throw it away, forget fixing it – when the repair costs are estimated to exceed 50 percent of the car’s retail value, pre-accident. So, if the car was worth about $8,000 before the accident, it will probably be “totaled” if the estimated repair cost is in the vicinity of $4,000.

It is very easy to spend $4,000 at the body shop – before even factoring in the cost of air bag replacement.

Much less replacing four or five air bags.

And you’re more likely to face having to replace them.

Because a car like the Mirage is small and light, an impact that might not cause the air bags (or fewer of them) to deploy in a larger, heavier car – in which there is more metal to absorb impact forces – is more likely to trigger an air bag deployment (multiple deployments).

Some will argue that’s a good thing; that air bags “save lives.” That it’s worth the cost. But unless they’re the ones paying the bills, who are they to dictate?

Shouldn’t it be the buyer’s choice?

I’d like to know where the air bags-at-gunpoint people get the idea that it’s ok to spend other people’s money. Whether it’s $1,000 or $100 per air bag, it’s none of their business (and so, no business of the government’s) whether your car has or doesn’t have air  bags.

Or ought not to be.

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