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Safer cars but fewer stars in government crash tests

By Ashley Halsey III
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 6, 2010; 5:02 PM

Two sedans on opposite ends of the price spectrum - the BMW 5 Series and the Hyundai Sonata - were the only 2011 vehicles to get the highest safety rating as the federal government released the first results from more-rigorous crash testing.

The 5 Series and the Sonata were among 33 vehicles rated in the initial release of 2011 test data by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which has been battering crash-test dummies since 1978 to produce its annual 5-Star Safety Ratings.

Few vehicles in the first batch tested under the new standards received a five-star rating - interestingly enough, because cars have been getting safer. The results were a sweet paradox for U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, who preaches safety with evangelical zeal.

"We are raising the bar on safety because we are subjecting automobiles to more-rigorous tests," he said Tuesday before a backdrop of mangled vehicles and flanked by a row of crash-test dummies outside his agency's headquarters in Southeast Washington. "We know that people wait to get these ratings . . . as they go to showrooms to buy automobiles."

Twenty-eight models, a mix of American and foreign brands, received a four-star overall rating. A pair got three stars and one - the Nissan Versa - got two. Ratings of additional vehicles will be released on a weekly basis as tests are completed, LaHood said.

This is the first time the ratings system has been used to give vehicles an overall score, combining results of frontal crash tests, side crash tests and rollover tests. Beginning with 2012models, the three key ratings used to compile that overall score will be included on the sticker information displayed by car dealers.

In revamping the testing system, NHTSA added a simulation of a vehicle sliding broadside into a tree or pole, used smaller "female" crash-test dummies, and factored in risk of injury and data about specific types of injuries.

Technological advances - notably electronic stability control and lane departure and forward collision warning systems - were figured into the mix. The Nissan Versa was the only vehicle in the first group tested that lacked standard electronic stability control.

"These technologies are standard on some cars and optional on others," said NHTSA Administrator David L. Strickland. "We made the test more severe for a reason: The vehicles were getting safer. We hope it pushed [manufacturers] to do more for safety."

Not all 2011 model vehicles available in the United States will be tested by NHTSA. The agency plans to test 24 passenger cars, 20 sport-utility vehicles, nine pickups and two minivans.

"We try to capture the vehicles most people are driving," Strickland said, estimating that those selected this year represent more than 60 percent of the market. Calling it "a good cross section," he said that once the more stringent system has become established, he hopes to test 85 percent of vehicles, as the government has in the past.

He cautioned that use of different test criteria meant that 2011 models were comparable to each other but that the new results should not be compared with those from prior years.

One of the nation's most popular cars, the Toyota Camry, received a three-star rating after getting three-star results in frontal and side crashes. Camrys from the 2010 model year received five stars in both front and side testing, while 2010 versions of the Versa got four stars in front and side testing.

Toyota said it anticipated the ratings for the Camry could drop even if the vehicle's design had not changed between model years. Toyota engineers are "investigating measures to further enhance safety performance" for the Camry, the company said.

Nissan did not immediately comment on the Versa ratings.

Strickland said he sent the initial test results to carmakers late Monday.

"I have not gotten any official reaction from them, but I'm sure I will," he said.

The Association of International Automobile Manufacturers , in a statement Tuesday, said the "new rating system now accounts for the advancements that our members have pioneered."

"AIAM member companies have invested billions of dollars developing and implementing advanced safety technologies, making current models among the safest vehicles ever available to consumers," said Michael J. Stanton, AIAM's president.

halseya@washpost.com The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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