In recent years, car buyers checking the federal government crash tests surely felt confident about safety. Almost all vehicles got at least four of five stars. Now, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), Washington, D.C., has revised those tests. It's now a lot tougher for your favorite car, truck, or van to get five stars.
Over the years, auto companies have made improvements to their models specifically to improve test results. "We want to make manufacturers stretch to make cars as safe as we believe is technologically feasible," says NHTSA administrator David Strickland. "The tests need to keep up with the state-of-the-art technology."
For the first time with 2011 models, the revised system will give an overall star rating—five stars for best to one for worst—for each vehicle. Previously, NHTSA awarded stars for front, side, and rollover tests but not a comprehensive rating. Of the 33 models rated initially, only two achieved overall five-star ratings: the BMW 5 Series and the Hyundai Sonata. The NHTSA website shows how vehicles performed with the new rating system.
The revisions cut stars from many popular models. Most notably, the 2011 Toyota Camry—still the best-selling sedan in the U.S.—got just three stars each for front and side crash tests and three stars overall. Under the old system, the 2010 Camry received five stars for front and side tests even though the 2010 and 2011 versions were almost identical.
Small-car Nissan Versa dropped from four stars to three in front crashes, three to two in side hits, and got an overall two stars. That is the lowest rating of the initial 33 vehicles for which ratings were released. The Ford Taurus dropped from the equivalent of five stars for 2010 to an overall four stars in 2011—as did the Honda Pilot, Jeep Grand Cherokee, and Subaru Outback and Legacy.
The new procedure includes simulating a crash into a tree or a telephone pole on the driver's side. It also adds smaller crash-test dummies to approximate accident effects on women and children as well as men. The new system also cites approvingly any models with crash avoidance technology, including electronic stability control—now on most models—and newer lane-departure and forward-collision warning systems, available mostly on luxury brands.
In addition to the government ratings, you should check on crash test ratings from the Insurance Institute of Highway Safety (IIHS), Arlington, Va. The IIHS—a research group sponsored by the insurance industry—does front and side crash tests, tests for roof strength related to rollovers, and rates rear-seat passenger protection. Models that rate well in their category get a Top Safety Pick rating. Several 2011 models now rated four stars by NHTSA get that top IIHS rating. They include the Ford Taurus, Jeep Grand Cherokee, Subaru Outback and Legacy, and the Toyota Sienna minivan.
The main difference in the two systems is the IIHS roof strength test and its approach to frontal crash tests. The NHTSA test crashes each vehicle straight on into a barrier. But IIHS does a so-called offset test, similar to procedures used in Europe. The car hits the barrier at a slight angle so that only a portion of the front hits it. "In a frontal crash, the whole vehicle is trying to protect passengers," says Henry Jasny, general counsel for Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, Washington, D.C., an alliance of consumer, safety, and insurance groups. "When it's offset, only part of the vehicle is involved in energy absorption. It's a tougher test."
Adrian Lund, president of IIHS, says that, while the NHTSA changes are a good step, they do not go far enough in differentiating vehicles. He points out that, while only two cars got five stars, most of the rest still got four. Among 2011 models, NHTSA will test and rate 22 more cars, SUVs, vans, and pickups beyond the initial list for a total of 55. That will leave some vehicles rated simply as Untested. But the IIHS still may rate these models. Jasny counsels car buyers to look at both sets of ratings. "It's a good thing to have more than one rating system," he says.
For 2011 ratings released so far, visit the NHTSA website. In addition, here's a closer look at the two five-star entries:
The 2011 Sonata has a complicated crash-test story. The initial production round of Sonatas—those that came off the assembly line before July 2—got a four-star rating. Before starting a new round of production, Hyundai made some structural and seatbelt changes that improved the next crash tests to a five-star rating. Hyundai did have to recall the Sonata recently for fixes on a problem with the steering column mandated by NHTSA. Nonetheless, it is tops among midsize sedans for crash tests. And the Sonata has won plaudits from reviewers for its sharp styling and overall good driving manners.
Jerry Edgerton is an automotive writer whose work has appeared in Money and other national magazines. He also is the author of "Car Shopping Made Easy."