Chrysler Corp.'s subcompact Dodge Omni and Plymouth Horizon cars have no safety problem related to stability and handling characteristics, according to extensive federal government test results announced yesterday.
The Transportation Department report directly contradicts findings by Consumers Union, which last month said the virtually identical cars are "unacceptable" because of "inferior emergency handling" risks. The Transportation Department said tests used by Consumers Union have "no significant relationship to any real world driving task or maneuver."
Officials at Chrysler, which earlier denounced the Consumers Union findings with similar language, expressed relief yesterday.
"These cars now have been put through some of the most extensive tests ever conducted by both the U.S. and Canadian government safety agencies," said vice president for engineering Sid Jeffe.
In a telephone interview, Jeffe said his company has 5,000 "dedicated, hard-working people at Belvidere. Ill, working on these cars, and frankly, they are ticked off . . . CU owes these people an apology."
Consumers Union, however, plans no apology, David Berliner, a spokesman for the independent testing organization in Mt. Vernon. N.Y., said: "We stand fully behind the findings we have made in the July issue [of Consumer Reports published by CU]. Nothing has happened to change our minds."
In the August issue of its magazine, CU plans to recommend that Chrysler recall the Omnis and Horizons to correct what the organization said is a problem of poor steering in some high-speed situations - when average drivers may be unable to control the cars.
After publication of the earlier Consumers Union announcement on June 14, National Highway Traffic Safety Administrator Joan Claybrook ordered immediate testing of the Chrysler cars. The Omni and Horizon were introduced late last year in a major effort by the nation's third-largest auto manufacturer to regain a larger share of the U.S. market.
Claybook said yesterday that three engineers from the Department of Transportation agency and two independent vehicle experts from the Highway Safety Research Institute at the University of Michigan participated in handling tests at Chrysler's [WORD ILLEGIBLE] grounds NHTSA rented its own car and included it in a test sample.
In addition engineers tested 13 other cars of three U.S. and five foreign manufacturers and conducted other tests at a Consumers Union test facility in Lime Rock Conn. Tests for stability employed by CU were used by the government teams at both sites.
In some tests, government drivers quickly turned the steering wheel approximately 90 degrees and then kept both hands off the wheel while maintaining a constant speed. In other tests, drivers negotiated back-and-forth lane changes, around cone markers, in rapid succession. All tests were conducted at speeds ranging between 45 and 55 miles per hour, the same range used by CU.
According to Claybrook, on the basis of CU's own testing methods "the engineers could not find a safety problem." Moreover, the government conducted additional tests for stability in traveling around corners, traveling over potholes and bumps and normal driving on smooth and rough roads.
Claybrook said Omnis and Horizons had performance characteristics at least comparable to other vehicles tested and were "highly resistant to road-induced course deflections."
Analysis of all tests showed that neither the CU tests nor the Cu test results "seem to have any material significance to handling characteristics . . . in real world use," the government agency said in a formal announcement.
Chrysler's Jeffe said yesterday his firm had requested a meeting with government safety officials after the "initial tremendous shock from CU." He called the CU tests "unfair and unreasonable and a stunt maneuver."
Other company officials said sales of Omnis and Horizons declined by about 23 percent after the CU report. Since January, more than 100,000 of the cars have been sold and many dealers have said demand was greater than they could supply.
Clarence Ditlow, of the Washington-based Center for Auto Safety, expressed surprise at yesterday's government report "in view of consumer complaints we have had on steering problems" of the two subcompacts. Ditlow said that in one accident, a driver swerved to avoid a rock and lost control of the car, which was destroyed.