An interesting fact about today's new cars is that, generally speaking, they are very safe to be in - and usually, safer relative to the cars of the past.

But they they're also more susceptible to expensive damage.

Back in the olden days - before the 1980s or thereabouts - most cars in this country were built like today's largest and toughest SUVs. Even "compact" cars of the 1960s and 1970s weighed 3,000-4,000 pounds or more - the equivalent of a current "mid-sized" car at least. And the "full-size" cars of those days were 18 and 19-foot leviathans that weighed more than 4,000 lbs. and were comparable in overall size, weight and construction design to the largest and heaviest modern SUVs.

But while the sheer size of those dinosaurs conferred a degree of inherent safety, the rigidity of the construction and design was not favorable to humans in a crash. In an impact, those mighty bumpers and thick, slab-sided panels hardly gave an inch - great in terms of saving on collision repair, but potentially not-so-great for anyone actually in the car. A large part of the force of impact was simply transfered, like a shock wave, through the massive steel panels, to the occupants.

If you weren't buckled-up, that non air bag-equipped steering wheel was apt to be your last meal.

Design and construction techniques used today are quite different. Instead of heavy, girder-like subframes with thick steel panels bolted on, the typical modern passenger car features a comparatively light-weight "unibody" chassis in which the frame and exterior panels are welded together to form a single structure. Exterior panels are generally made of much thinner gauge metal, even plastic - and can indeed almost be bent by hand.

If it looks flimsy - it's on purpose.

The exterior structures are specifically designed to "give" in an impact - crumpling up and thereby asborbing a great portion of the force of an impact. (Hence the term, "crumple zones.") Only the basic cabin area or "cage" itself is designed to resist deformation or crumpling - employing such features as braces at the cowl and side-impact bars to keep the doors from being smashed inwards and crunching the occupants.

This has substantially improved crashworthiness - but the downside has been much higher repair costs, even after relatively minor impacts. For example, getting "bumped" by another car in a parking lot in a modern car can easily lead to $1,000 or more of cosmetic damage - because the flexible urethane/plastic "fascias" used in lieu of external metal bumpers are easily ripped or otherwise ruined beyond economic repair. Fenders can be kicked in by a sturdy boot - and most new cars hoods can be bent in half with bare hands.

What used to be fixable with a can of rubbing compound and an old rag now requires insurance adjusters and body shops.

It is in these low-speed accidents around 10-20 mph where the difference in design philosophy between old old cars and modern cars becomes most apparent. In such an impact, the typical result will be fairly extensive damage as the front or rear end of the vehicles involved "accordionize." Plus, the air bag(s) will usually deploy. Combined, the total damage can easily be many thousands of dollars .

A low-speed accident involving a pair of land yachts from the 1970s, in contrast, would likely incur no visible damage at all. Maybe you'd have to rub the bumper with chrome polish to get the shine back. The fenders could take a serious hit - and forget about trying to bend the hood with your bare hands.

So now you know one reason why insurance costs have been skyrocketing (along with the prices of new cars themselves). Modern cars are much more costly to repair - and are damaged more easily - than the cars of the past, even though they are designed to be very safe.