All the talk likening small cars to sardine cans can finally be retired. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) has released new crash-test results and ratings for more than a dozen small cars and found that, thankfully, automakers have made significant progress in small-car safety—and, that fuel economy and safety aren't mutually exclusive.

Of the 13 small cars that were recently evaluated by the Institute, six have achieved the Top Safety Pick award—signaling top results in all categories as well as available electronic stability control.

Focus, Civic, Elantra join Cruze and Golf as top picks

Among the latest vehicles to be rated were the all-new 2012 Ford Focus, the refreshed 2012 Honda Civic, the 2011 Hyundai Elantra, and the Nissan Juke—as well as the latest version of the Toyota Prius and the related Lexus CT 200h hybrid. All of these models achieve Top Safety Pick status, meaning that they get top 'good' ratings in frontal and side impact tests, the seat-based rear test, and the new roof strength test.

The IIHS says that while just three models earned the Top Safety Pick accolade in 2006, and things were even worse before than. The first time the Institute tested small cars in side impact, in 2005, 14 of the 16 models earned a 'poor' rating, while there are now a total of 22 small models that earn top scores in side impact and all other test areas.

That said, it's still worth considering that even with one of these small cars carrying top ratings, the level of occupant protection probably still doesn't rival what you'd see in a bigger, heavier vehicle.

Laws of physics still apply

"Even though fuel prices sometimes defy gravity, the laws of physics always are in effect for cars," commented IIHS chief research officer David Zuby, in a release accompanying the results. "That's why it's important that the crashworthiness designs of smaller cars be as good as possible. The new ratings demonstrate that small cars are much safer than they used to be."

Safety equipment has been improving, too; the IIHS points out that Caliber, SX4, and Versa—each among the most affordable new vehicles—now come standard with electronic stability control.

The flip side of this is that, with these latest small cars, you don't have to make significant sacrifices in safety for fuel economy. The IIHS points out that ten small and minicar models get 40 mpg or higher on the highway and earn Top Safety Pick status. Those ranks include the Prius and CT 200h, as well as the Focus, Chevrolet Cruze Eco, Honda Civic HF, Hyundai Elantra, Golf TDI, and Fiesta SFE—plus the new Chevrolet Volt and Nissan Leaf plug-ins.

Not all honor-roll students

But it wasn't all good news. In the latest round of testing, the Honda CR-Z, Honda Insight, Nissan Versa, Nissan Sentra, and Scion xD failed to make Top Safety Pick status due to one or more 'acceptable' ratings, while the Suzuki SX4 was rated just 'marginal' in both rollover and rear protection and the Dodge Caliber managed only 'marginal' for side protection' and 'acceptable' for rollover.