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Electric car batteries pass latest crash tests

The latest round of crash tests involving two of the country's most popular electric cars shows the batteries in those vehicles hold up with no major issues after violent front end collisions.

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety crashed a Chevy Volt and Nissan LEAF as part of the latest round of tests involving small cars.

"We measure thermo and electrical properties of the battery," said Joe Nolan with the Insurance Institute. "We look at its integrity in the vehicle and in neither case for these crash tests or in any of the crash tests we've conducted of the Leaf or the Volt did we see a problem with the batteries."

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In all, IIHS has now conducted five different crash tests with the LEAF and Volt. After each test (front, side-impact, rear-impact, roof strength and small overlap) the integrity of the batteries was not compromised.

Occupant Safety Mixed Reviews

The LEAF and Volt crash tests resulted in mixed reviews for how the two models protect occupants.

Chevy's Volt, an extended-range electric car, was given a rating of "acceptable" by IIHS while the LEAF was rated as "poor."

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"It (the LEAF) has a major collapse of the occupant department and that lead to all sorts of problems in other areas of occupant protection," said Nola.

The IIHS small overlap test replicates a collision where the front corner of the driver's side of the car hits another car or object at 40 mph. It is among the most common and deadliest vehicle crashes.

GM's Chevy Volts on the assembly line in Detroit, Michigan.
Getty Images
GM's Chevy Volts on the assembly line in Detroit, Michigan.

The LEAF tied with other models as the poorest of small vehicles tested at protecting occupants while the Volt was rated as the best in the small overlap collisions.

Tesla Model S not tested

IIHS has yet to conduct crash tests of the Tesla Model S. Why?

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The Institute buys the vehicles it crashes or it conducts tests at the request of automakers. Tesla has not yet asked the IIHS to crash the Model S and the Institute says it has not yet bought the popular electric car for crash tests.

Over the last year, a handful of high profile battery fires involving the Model S raised questions about the safety of electric vehicles and their battery compartments.

Following an investigation by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, Tesla decided to modify the Model S and put a titanium plate under the bottom of the car to protect the battery compartment from being punctured or sparking a fire.

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While Nolan has yet to put the Model S through crash tests, he has seen enough in collisions of the Volt and LEAF to reach a conclusion about the safety of the battery compartments in electric vehicles.

"I have not seen any sign of compelling evidence that there is a systematic problem with electrical vehicles on the road," said Nolan. "I think what we see in the media are very high profile, very severe real world crashes where vehicles are literally ripped apart and sometimes the batteries will overheat or leak, but the reality is that is happening with gasoline powered vehicles all the time. We are just accustomed to it and don't focus on it."

—By CNBC's Phil LeBeau.

Questions? Comments? BehindTheWheel@cnbc.com.

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