American car manufacturers say they won't try to capitalize on recent Department of Transportation crash tests by claiming that their cars are safer than imported competitors.

An official of Chrysler Corp., whose subcampact Dodge Omnis and Plymouth Horizons "passed" the special head-on crash tests earlier this year, said the company wasn't interested in that kind of "negative" advertising.

"I don't think our lawyers would go near that with a 10-foot pole," the official said.

A Ford spokesman said the company also plans no crash-safety advertising, although its Mustang also passed.

And General Motors Corp. has attacked the entire testing program vehemently, calling it "simplistic," "highly speculative," and "misleading."

GM's Cheverolet Chevette was the star of the latest crash test show -- a Tuesday press conference by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the DOT agency that conducted the tests. Ten of the leading imported subcompacts and minicompacts failed the 35-miles-an-hour head-on crash tests, while the chevette and a Fiat Strada passed.

Joan Claybrook, head of NHTSA, said Tuesday that the most popular Japanese imports were not as well-equipped as competitive American built cars to protect occupants in head-on crashes. She singled out seat belt and steering column design and overall structural strength as the key differences between the U.S. and Japanese models.

From GM's reaction, it might seem that Claybrook had fired a broadside at Detroit, this time, instead of Japan.

For from drawing comfort from the government's experimental safety tests, GM and other auto manufacturers see them as the first steps toward a crash survival rating system. Their nightmare is the day when NHTSA begins tagging new cars as "best in its class" or "just meets minimum safety standards" or with some other safety label.

The manufacturers also seem to see the test program as disguised propaganda attack against seatbelts and a continuation of NHTSA's campaign for airbags. The tests are based on measurements of crash forces on human-form dummies wired with electronic sensors. All the dummies were restrained by seat belts, but 10 out of 12 cars "failed" the tests.

GM told NHTSA in April that "there is no justification for representing these tests results as realistic comparative crashworthiness measures." The dummies do not accurately represent what would happen to humans in such crashes, GM contends.

GM also said NHTSA's warning that occupants of cars that "fail" the tests would likely suffer serious or fatal injuries is contrary to actual accident data.

A 35-miles-an-hour head-on crash is not nearly as dangerous as NHTSA makes it out to be, said David E. Martin, GM director of automotive safety engineering, in an April 30 letter to the federal agency.

A GM study of accidents involving 1972 through 1975 model year cars showed that among car occupants who weren't wearing seat belts, 7 out of 100 suffered serious fatal injuries, Martin said.

And if NHTSA doesn't trust GM's figures, it should look at its own, Martin said. An agency crash safety report dated October 1979 indicated a probable fatality rate of 8 percent in a 35 mph crash.

"Clearly, such a probability is not an insignificant safety concern," said Martin, but it does show that some people can walk away from accidents at that speed. He claimed that NHTSA's crash tests unfairly left a much grimmer impression.

NHTSA counters that these numbers refer to the entire auto fleet. Its Tuesday report dealt with small cars, which it claims are particularly dangerous.