New NHTSA Safety Ratings Released

By Joe Wiesenfelder  on October 5, 2010

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The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has announced changes to its five-star New Car Assessment Program, which we detailed on Saturday.

Today, we have the results of these new tests for 33 new models. NHTSA will test more than 50 this year out of the roughly 300 new car, truck, minivan and SUV models on the market.

Scores Shift Downward
For years, Cars.com has expressed dissatisfaction with the current NCAP, especially compared with test results published by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. Over the years, the number of five-star scores has increased so much that there were too many highly rated models. This reflected an improvement in vehicle performance but also the system's failure to reflect differences in vehicle crashworthiness that we know exist. IIHS ratings reveal those differences, and any grading scale in which the majority of subjects are top-rated has failed to evolve.


Though models weren't assigned overall scores in previous years, the new system does, and of the 33 new 2011 models tested so far, 28 hold an overall score of four stars. Two have five stars, two have three stars and one vehicle has two stars. None scored just one star.

The 2010 frontal and side-impact ratings were dominated by five-star scores. In the new frontal-crash ratings, 19 of the 33 models tested score four stars — a clear downward shift —but five-star ratings still blanket the 2011 side-impact scores, accounting for 26 of 33 models.

Most Significant Downgrades
Under the new system, not a single frontal or side-impact score increased, though many stayed the same or dropped. The early 2011 report gives a single rating for the frontal-impact crash rather than cite driver and passenger separately as the previous program did. Likewise, the side-impact rating is no longer broken into front- and rear-seat results.

Numerous models that had double-five-star frontal ratings in 2010 now have a four-star rating. Some dropped even farther: The Toyota Camry, which had fives across the board in the frontal and side ratings, now has three stars for both. The Toyota Sienna minivan, which was split four and five stars for the driver and front passenger now have a single score of three in the frontal test. The Subaru Legacy, once decorated as a quadruple-five-star, now has fours across the board. Of the initial crop of test subjects, the 2011 Nissan Versa subcompact has the lowest rating: two stars overall, three for the frontal crash and two for the side crash. In 2010, the Versa had four stars in these tests.

Because NCAP methods have changed substantially, 2010 versus 2011 isn't a direct comparison. Still, when a few models see their ratings drop disproportionately, there must be a reason. NHTSA attributes it to any or all of the program's three main changes: the addition of a side-pole test, greater diversity in the size of crash-test dummies and the additional data they now collect.

NHTSA vs. IIHS
The new NCAP's early results include star ratings that seem to contradict IIHS conclusions. For example, several 2011 models the IIHS deems Top Safety Picks — with top scores in all of its tests — earned four stars in the NHTSA's new overall test, one star shy of the top rating. The disparity reflects differences in the two organization's tests, which we detailed in Saturday’s post. 

As Ever, Too Few Tests
The safety-rating agencies never test as many cars as consumers want, and some models go untested eternally. This hasn't changed with the new NCAP. The preliminary report has 33 entries, and NHTSA says we can expect no more than 55 total for the 2011 model year, including 24 cars, 20 SUVs, two minivans and nine pickup trucks. There are more than 300 models on the U.S. market.

Further, many of the current and future results cover sister models as well as different body styles and drivelines of the same model. For example, the preliminary report lists four versions of Audi's A4, including one that isn't sold in the U.S. (S4 Avant). The four Cadillac Escalades are the same vehicle in regular and hybrid form, in two- and four-wheel-drive versions. This model and the related Chevrolet Tahoe and GMC Yukon represent the same tests, so the number of tests conducted are even fewer than the results we see.

At first look, the revamped NCAP looks vastly improved, but it will be a long time before the entire market is reflected in the results.

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Executive Editor Joe Wiesenfelder, a Cars.com launch veteran, leads the car evaluation effort. He owns a 1984 Mercedes 300D and a 2002 Mazda Miata SE.  Email Joe