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Friday, November 09, 2007
Five-Star Ratings Explained
New car buyers care about options, good looks, and the right price, but safety ratings are the most important factor in choosing a new car. Car company after car company boasts about its new vehicle's "five-star crash test rating." But do buyers know exactly what a five-star rating from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) means…and how that impacts purchasing a new car?
NHTSA spokesperson Rae Tyson explains, "NHTSA is part of the federal government, and our funding is allocated by Congress." The NHTSA has been testing front-side impact since 1978 for the 1979 model year, and side impact since 1996 for the 1997 model year. It introduced the rollover test in 2001. These crash test ratings are all on a five-star scale.
"NHTSA buys all of the test vehicles randomly without the manufactures knowing who we are," Tyson says. "That way we get a good sample of everyday vehicles."
The vehicles are tested three different ways by the NHTSA. A maximum of five stars is awarded in each category, with the frontal rating gauging the risk of head and chest injury, the side rating gauging chest injury, and the rollover test based on a vehicle's stability.
"Rollover is critical for a category that is very rollover prone, like an SUV, pick-up, or van," Tyson continues. "We do rollover testing for everything, including passenger vehicles. Rollover is not just a problem restricted to light trucks alone."
Tyson advises potential buyers to look at the numbers published the NHTSA's consumer website, www.safercar.gov, to learn how well a vehicle scores. The 2008 Acura RL and the 2008 Lincoln Town Car are two of the safest cars on the road—and two of the only vehicles that earned five stars across the board.
The ratings have improved since testing began almost 30 years ago. "There really isn't any question about it," Tyson explains. "Most of the vehicles we are testing are getting such good crash test scores that we are working on a top-to-bottom review to figure out ways to make the testing much tougher."
According to Tyson, there are a few features that deserve close consumer attention, including electronic stability control, especially on SUVs and pick-ups. Also important are anti-lock brakes and side impact protection, such as side curtain airbags. "While side airbags are not a government requirement," he says, "they are an option well worth having."
Tyson also dismissed the common misconception that smaller cars are unsafe. "While there are some safer small cars in the market, the consumer needs to understand there are vehicles that are safer than others in every size range. If you have your heart set on a smaller vehicle, find one that scores the best."
Safer smaller car options for 2008 include the Nissan Versa (the four- and five-door configurations), the Scion xB and xD, Chevrolet Aveo, Kia Rondo, and Honda S2000.
Mid- and full-size vehicles that earned higher ratings include the BMW 3 Series, Chevrolet Impala, Nissan Altima 4-door and coupe, and Lexus ES350.
It's especially important to look at rollover ratings when it comes to 2008 SUVs. Models that earned high marks include the Acura MDX and RDX, Buick Enclave, Ford Edge, Honda CR-V, Subaru B9 Tribeca, Toyota Highlander, and Volkswagen Touareg 2.
One should note that these vehicles' ratings are based on models equipped with optional or standard side air bags.
With so many five-star vehicles on the market, are there any badly rated cars out now?
"There were some models that scored low when we first started, but they have been steadily improving," notes Tyson. "We used to see a lot of two stars. Now, not so many."
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