By JOSH MITCHELL
The Wall Street Journal | AUTOS
Tougher government crash tests for the 2011 model year are making it harder for car makers to win coveted “5-star” safety ratings for their vehicles, which they widely tout in ads.
The U.S. Transportation Department on Tuesday formally launched a more rigorous system for grading car safety. The new system for the first time gives vehicles one overall safety rating, as well as various subratings, with one star for the worst and five stars for the best.
The system, which applies to cars and light trucks starting in the current 2011 model year, means fewer top safety ratings. In effect, too many vehicles were getting top scores on the government’s previous crash tests, so regulators made the tests harder.
For the first time, the tests use crash-test dummies to gauge the impact of a crash on women, not just men.
The tests also simulate a crash into a pole on the driver’s side, and the ratings will note for the first time whether cars contain certain accident-prevention technologies, such as electronic stability control.
Some industry officials are concerned that consumers could be confused by the change, since ratings for vehicles from the 1990 through 2010 model years won’t be comparable with those issued under the new, more-demanding system.
The U.S. plans to test about 55 vehicles from the 2011 model year under the new system. Of the 33 tested so far, only two achieved an overall score of five stars: BMW AG’s BMW 5 Series and Hyundai Motor Co.’s Sonata.
That compares with 99 models from the 2010 model year that received five stars in both the front and side crash tests.
Some vehicles that are largely the same for 2011 as they were in 2010 will get lower scores. Ford Motor Co.’s Taurus, which won a five-star front crash rating for 2010, earned only four stars for 2011 in both frontal crashes and overall safety. The 2011 Toyota Motor Corp. Camry received three stars for its front crash rating, and three stars overall. For 2010, Camry earned a five-star front-crash rating and five-star side-crash rating.
Toyota—which recalled millions of vehicles this year for safety concerns—said in a statement it anticipated the ratings could go down under the new system. “Toyota engineers are investigating measures to further enhance safety performance so Camry again obtains outstanding assessment results under the new rating system,” the company said.
Transportation Department officials said the old system had become obsolete. The initiative to make the tests and the scoring tougher began in 2008 under the Bush administration.
Improvements in vehicle design and safety technology, along with better driving habits such as increased use of seat belts, contributed to a reduction in traffic deaths last year to the lowest level since 1950.
“We’re just trying to make the manufacturers stretch” even more to make cars safer, said David Strickland, chief of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
The car industry hasn’t taken a position on the new system, but officials said they understood the rationale. “It’s like in high school, when every student gets an A, you want to switch the test,” said Wade Newton, a spokesman for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers.
But with some cars seeing their scores drop, even though the car hasn’t changed, makers are worried that might affect sales. Another issue they cite is the dearth of five-star ratings.
“There is a small number of consumers who say, ‘I won’t buy it unless it’s five stars,'” said Daniel Ryan, government and safety affairs manager for Mazda Motor Corp.’s North American operations.
The government hopes to rate 60% of the 2011 models. That means many cars will be rated “untested.” Car ratings can be found at http://www.safercar.gov.
Mr. Strickland said all cars must pass minimum standards, but the intent was to further help consumers differentiate among vehicles. “I would certainly drive a car that had less than five stars,” he said.