Car Safety: New Crash Tests Reduce Star Ratings

Last Updated Oct 8, 2010 4:48 PM EDT

Like Garrison Keillor's Lake Wobegon where every child is above average, government safety crash tests were producing five-star ratings for most vehicles. So for 2011 models, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has launched new, more rigorous tests. The result: It's a lot tougher for your favorite car, truck or van to get five stars.

Of the 33 models rated initially, only two achieved overall five-star ratings: The BMW 5-series and the Hyundai Sonata (more details below). For the first time, NHTSA is giving an overall rating for a vehicle in addition to individual ratings for front crash tests, side crash tests and potential for rollover accidents.

The new ratings reduce stars for many models. Notably the Toyota Camry -- which for 2010 models got five stars for front and side crash tests -- got three each in those tests and three overall, even though the 2011 model is little changed. (See Toyota Recall: Safe Stops and Crash Tests). Small-car Nissan Versa dropped from four to three in front crashes, three to two in side and got an overall two stars, the lowest rating of the initial list. The Ford Taurus dropped from the equivalent of five-star status in 2010 an overall four stars for 2011 along with the Honda Pilot, Jeep Grand Cherokee and Subaru Outback and Legacy.

The new procedures include simulating a crash into a pole on the driver's side and add smaller crash-test dummies to approximate accident effects on women. In another change, the new ratings compare one vehicle with another in the same class for overall risk of injury. The new system also cites approvingly any models with crash-avoidance technology including electronic stability control -- now on most models -- and newer lane-departure warning and forward-collision warning, available mostly on luxury brands.

Among 2011 models, NHTSA will test and rate 22 more cars, SUVs, vans and pickups beyond the initial list (see full list below) for a total of 55. That will leave some vehicles rated simply as Untested. But if a model that interests you falls into that category, check out the crash test ratings from the Insurance Institute of Highway Safety.
The IIHS does front and side crash tests, tests for roof strength related to rollovers and rates rear-seat passenger protection. Models that score 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 Jeep Grand Cherokee, Subaru Outback and Legacy, the Toyota Sienna minivan and Ford Taurus (See Ford Taurus: Luxury Car? Better Believe It).

Here's a closer look at the two five-star entries:

BMW 5 Series The 2011 redesign of the 5-Series is beloved as ever by reviewers. (See New Cars 2011: What to Look for in Luxury Cars). The 5-series does not have lane departure or forward collision warnings touted by NHTSA. But it does have a raft of other optional safety features, including night vision to help avoid pedestrians and deer on dark roads, and adaptive cruise control, which keeps your car a set distance behind the car ahead.

Hyundai Sonata The Sonata has recently ranked third in sales behind perennial mid-size sedan leaders Toyota Camry and Honda Accord propelled by Hyundai's steadily improving reliability, high gas mileage and competitive prices. (See New Cars 2011: What to Look for in Mid-Size Cars). The 2011 Sonata has a complicated crash test story. The initial production 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 seat belt 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 mid-size sedans for crash tests.

Photos courtesy of the manufacturers

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Here are the full listings for the initial models ranked by NHTSA. In several cases, both the two-wheel drive and four-wheel drive versions of the same model are listed separately.

Make

Model

Overall Frontal Crash Rating

Overall Side Crash Rating

Rollover Rating

Overall Vehicle Score

Audi

A4 Avant Wagon

4

5

5

4

Audi

A4 FWD

4

5

5

4

Audi

S4 FWD

4

5

5

4

BMW

5 Series 4 DR RWD

4

5

5

5

Cadillac

Escalade 4WD

5

5

3

4

Cadillac

Escalade Hybrid 4WD

5

5

3

4

Cadillac

Escalade RWD

5

5

3

4

Cadillac

Escalde Hybrid RWD

5

5

3

4

Chevrolet

Malibu FWD

4

5

4

4

Chevrolet

Tahoe 4WD

5

5

3

4

Chevrolet

Tahoe RWD

5

5

3

4

Ford

Fiesta

4

5

4

4

Ford

Taurus AWD

4

5

4

4

Ford

Taurus FWD

4

5

4

4

GMC

Yukon RWD

5

5

3

4

GMC

Yukon 4WD

5

5

3

4

Honda

Pilot 4WD

4

5

4

4

Honda

Pilot FWD

4

5

4

4

Hyundai

Sonata (early release)

3

5

5

4

Hyundai

Sonata (later release)

4

5

5

5

Infiniti

M37

4

5

4

4

Infiniti

M56

4

5

4

4

Jeep

Grand Cherokee 4WD

4

5

4

4

Jeep

Grand Cherokee RWD

4

5

3

4

Kia

Sorento AWD

4

4

4

4

Kia

Sorento FWD

4

4

4

4

Nissan

Versa

3

2

4

2

Subaru

Legacy

4

4

5

4

Subaru

Outback

4

4

4

4

Toyota

Camry

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