The Honda Civic was the only small car to earn the top rating in an insurance industry test that seeks to measure damage and injuries from a crash into an immovable object such as a post or a tree.
The two- and four-door models of the Civic received a "good" rating in the important new test, conducted by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, an industry group.
The Dodge Dart, Ford Focus, Hyundai Elantra and 2014 model Scion tC earned "acceptable" ratings.
Six other popular models earned "marginal" or "poor" ratings, including the Chevrolet Sonic, Chevrolet Cruze, Volkswagen Beetle, Nissan Sentra, Kia Soul and Kia Forte.
"These tests are very important and are something the automakers watch closely," said Dave Sullivan, manager of product analysis for AutoPacific Inc., an industry consulting firm. "It is pretty dramatic when you can go online and watch on video your car crash in a test."
The test -- in which 25% of a car's front end on the driver's side strikes a 5-foot-tall rigid barrier at 40 mph -- simulates a wreck in which the front corner of the car hits another car or a solid object. The institute established the test because front corner crashes can be particularly severe.
As a group, the small cars fared worse than their mid-size counterparts in the same test, but better than small SUVs, the institute said.
Generally, the small cars that did poorly in the test had some of the same issues as larger models, says David Zuby, the institute's chief research officer.
"In the worst cases, safety cages collapsed, driver airbags moved sideways with unstable steering columns and the dummy's head hit the instrument panel," Zuby said. "Side curtain airbags didn't deploy or didn't provide enough forward coverage to make a difference."
The Kia Forte fared the worst of the small cars tested, the institute said. Its seat belt allowed too much slack, and the side curtain airbag deployed but didn't provide enough protection. The crash dummy's head hit the windshield pillar and instrument panel, according to the institute.
Kia said that all of the vehicles it sells in the U.S.meet or exceed federal motor vehicle safety standards.
"Maximizing occupant protection is complex and involves a diverse range of variables, and Kia is proud of its strong safety record and the integrity of its products," the automaker said in a statement.
It said that the small overlap crash test goes well beyond federal requirements and "is only one of the many tests used to evaluate vehicles."
In the test of the VW Beetle, the steering column moved nearly 5 inches to the right as the dummy's upper body moved forward and to the left.
"The rotation meant that the dummy's head barely contacted the front airbag," the institute reported. "At the same time, the safety belt spooled out too much, allowing the dummy to move forward 13 inches and hit its head on the dashboard. The side airbag didn't deploy."
In contrast, the test dummy in the Civic was well protected. The car sustained only minimal intrusion into the occupant compartment, providing "survival space for the dummy," the institute said.
All cars tested were 2013 models except the tC and Forte.
The trade group regularly tests cars and issues ratings as it does research into automobile safety for the insurance industry. The tests have pushed automakers to make improvements in their cars to win better ratings.
Toyota, for instance, improved its airbag system in the 2014 Scion TC after receiving poor marks on the test, Zuby said.
The institute first started publishing data on these kinds of crashes in 2009 and has previously tested mid-size luxury cars, mid-size cars and small SUVs. It will release the results for subcompacts – the smallest cars on the road - later this year.