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  • The Safest Cars on the Road

    Would you believe the VW Beetle tops the Jeep Cherokee? Our new ranking system goes beyond the usual

    data and finds some surprises. Robert L. Simison reports.

    HUNT WILLIAMS learned a hard lesson when an out-of-control sport-utility-vehicle slammed into his family's SUV on a snowy mountain road two years ago. Although miraculously no one was injured, he vowed never to skimp on automobile safety.

    So when the Salt Lake City real-estate broker went car shopping this summer, he bought one of the biggest, heaviest passenger vehicles on the road: a $32,000 Chevrolet Tahoe SUV, hailed by the manufacturer for it's "crash avoidance and occupant protection" capabilities. "Now we feel we can go anywhere and do anything," says Mr. Williams. "I want my wife to be driving that car with my kids."

    But did he really buy a safe auto? Anyone trying to make a rational safety choice in the car market faces a big hurdle. In an age when the safety records of air-lines and hospitals are only a click of a mouse away, it's nearly impossible to figure out which vehicle is the safest-that is, in which model you and your family are least likely to be injured or killed in a crash. While there are reams of statistics on crash tests and death and injury rates, much of what exists either doesn't allow for comparisons across vehicle categories or doesn't account for crashes involving moving vehicles of different sizes.

    So Weekend Journal set out to digest the disparate pieces of data and produce a single ranking system for comparing cars, SUVs, vans and pickups. We developed a formula with the help of government and industry safety experts, engineers and statisticians across the country. It first combines the results of various government crash tests to yield an overall crash-test rating. It then modifies those results to account for vehicle weight, which is widely considered the best single predictor of performance in a real-life accident. While our system is only a broad measure, it is a useful framework for assessing relative safety.

    We found some surprising results: Big as they are, SUVs fared worse as a class than we expected. Yes, the mega-SUVS dominated the top ranks. But the Audi A8, our highest-ranked car, came in several slots ahead of the Ford Explorer and Toyota 4Runner. And more than a dozen cars-including the two-door Honda Accord and even the subcompact Volkswagen Beetle-landed ahead of the popular Jeep Cherokee.

    A few well-known luxury brands that boast safety didn't do a well as one might expect from their ads. Consider Volvo, nearly synonymous with safety for many Americans: Its S80 got a high overall score but finished essentially in a tie with the less-heralded Audi A8, and the Volvo S70 came in more than a dozen cars behind the Chevrolet Impala. Meanwhile, the compact Mercedes C230 sedan had a fairly low ranking-near the bottom third of the models we evaluated and behind the more-moderately priced Chevrolet Lumina and Chrysler Concord.

    Nor did steeper sticker prices necessarily correlate with higher rankings. The Nissan Pathfinder SUV, for example, came out more than a half-dozen slots behind the Honda Odyssey, even though the Odyssey costs $6,000 or so less.

    Reassuringly for families with children, several minivans rank near the highest-rated mega-SUVs. While the top spots are shared by five hulking General Motors SUVs (including the Tahoe purchased by Mr. Williams of Salt Lake City), the Honda Odyssey and Ford Windstar minivans follow closely behind. In all, 10 minivans placed in the top third. Minivans have long been described as sufficiently safe, but they don't have the aura of tank-like invincibility of the biggest SUVs.

    You'll note that some vehicles with strong crash-test ratings didn't perform well in our ratings. Unlike the staged government tests, in which every vehicle is crashed into the same fixed barrier, the outcome of real-world accidents varies wildly depending on speed, the angel of collision and what kind of object a vehicle hits. We factored in vehicle weight as a rough proxy for those and other variables that don't always play out in crash tests. For example, extra weight often indicates that a vehicle has more crush space and a higher bumper, which may help protect occupants in a crash with another vehicle.

    You'll also note that some luxury models, such as the BMW 5-series and the Cadillac Seville, are missing. That's because, due to budget constraints, the government doesn't conduct crash tests on some of the most expensive cars.

    Finally, no ranking system can account for what experts generally agree are the most important variables in auto safety: driver behavior and whether or not the occupants wear seatbelts. Nor is there yet any way to rate the impact of new high-tech accident-avoidance equipment, such as radar-based braking devices and advanced xenon lights.

    Still, the experts we consulted, including safety officials at major automakers and with the government. say our approach is a reasonable one. Because our system is new-and because there were only small differences in the safety scores of some vehicles-we opted not to award numerical rankings. Instead, we divided vehicles into ten groups, or deciles, each representing about 10% of the list. Here are our results. (All weights are in pounds.)

    SUVS WEIGHT/SCORE

    TOP FIVE

    • GMC Suburvan
    • Chevy Suburban (tie) 5,759/166.45
    • Cadillac Escalade
    • GMC Yukon Denali
    • Chevy Tahoe (tie) 5,372/155.26
    • Lincoln Navigator
    • Ford Expedition (tie) 4,890/141.33
    • Mercedes-Benz ML320 4,396/137.42
    • Nissan Pathfinder
    • Infiniti QX4 (tie) 4,4147/134.58

    BOTTOM FIVE WEIGHT/SCORE

    • Jeep Wrangler 3,322/96.01
    • Subaru Forester 3,171/91.65
    • Toyota RAV4 2,908/90.98
    • Dodge Durango 4,657/89.27
    • Jeep Cherokee 3,457/77.33

    WITH SO MUCH OF THE TOP decile of our index dominated by SUVs, we were surprised to see that a handful of SUVs-and not just the smallest models-wound up with below average overall safety scores. Even the hefty Dodge Durango finished in the bottom half of our rankings-behind a great many sedans. The reason: It has a low driver's side head-on crash rating. Our system weights that test most heavily because statistically the driver is the most exposed occupant in a crash.

    Some SUV's with high crash -test scores also did relatively poorly. For example, the Subaru Forester and Toyota RAV4 came out in the bottom half of the index, despite their four-star and five-star crash ratings. That's because they weight only about 3,000 pounds, which is lighter even than some coupes..

    Spokesmen for Subaru and Toyota say their vehicles are safe. Indeed, Subaru's spokesman says the Forester's lightweight may actually provide an advantage by making it easier to maneuver the vehicle and avoid accidents: "How nimble is a 7,000-pound truck?"

    GM's Suburban, sold in Chevy and GMC versions, got the highest overall safety score in our index. Although its crash ratings are below those of the best minivans, the Suburban is far and away the

    Heaviest vehicle we ranked-a full three-quarters of a ton more than the Honda Odyssey minivan.

    For safety-conscious drivers who don't want something truly enormous, the Mercedes-Benz ML320-at the top of our second grouping of vehicles-is a popular choice. Although more than 1,000 pounds lighter than the Suburban, it has a "best pick" rating from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, based on independent crash tests. That was enough to tip the scales for Sally Shaffer of Kansas City, Mo., who scoured the Internet to chart crash-test ratings. After she and her husband barely survived a horrific front-end collision six years ago, she says, "I'm not going to buy any car that doesn't have a rating."

    DaimierChrysler AG-which makes the Dodge Durango, Jeep Wrangler and Jeep Cherokee

    In our bottom five-days government crash tests give very little indication of real-world safety. The company adds that our ranking of the Wrangler is inconceivable, given its four-star crash-test ratings and relatively low injury rates.

    There are SUVS on the road that are bigger than the ones we ranked, but they haven't been crash-tested by the government. Ford's new Excursion, for example, weights about 7,000 pounds-far more than any vehicle in our list. But some safety experts argue that the benefits of added weight are diminished substantially when the vehicle gets to be above 4,000 pounds. Indeed, some of the biggest SUVs are built on stiff steel rails that may make them more rigid and less capable of absorbing impact in certain kinds of collisions,

    In addition, government and insurance-industry safety authorities worry that high centers of gravity and narrow wheelbases make small SUVs and pick-ups prone to rollover accidents. Although the government plans to propose a method for measuring stability soon, there is currently no way to do so. As a result, we were unable to factor that issue into our index.

    VANS

    TOP FOUR WEIGHT/SCORE

    • Honda Odyssey 4,244/153.31
    • Ford Windstar 4,126/149.06
    • Ford Econoline 4,760/137.57
    • Toyota Sienna 3,973/135.43

    BOTTOM TWO WEIGHT/SCORE

    • Chevrolet Asto 4,468/107.39
    • GMC Safari 4,126/99.17

    VANS AS A WHOLE fared very well in our index-even better than SUVs. Ten of the 12 vans wound up in the top third of all the vehicles are rated, compared with just over half of the SUVs. This partly reflects their heft; vans tend to weigh 4,000 pounds or more. But van rankings also benefited from generally strong performance in federal crash tests. One reason: They are big enough for designers to build in extra "crush space." Which helps absorb the energy of a collision and protect occupants.

    Vans rated so well, in fact, that even some of the lower-ranked models had fairly high safety scores. By scores alone, for example the Plymouth Grand Voyager and Dodge Caravan were among the bottom four vans. But their indexed safety score was 119,87, comfortably above average and not far below the higher-ranked Toyota Sienna. As a result, we are listing only tow vans in the bottom ranks: the Chevrolet Astro and the GMC Safari.

    The Astro and Safari came out at the bottom largely because they had mediocre crash-test scores. They are both older designs, which statistically don't tend to do as well as new ones in the government

    Tests. GM says both models are safe, that it does more crash testing of its vehicles than the government

    And that federal crash tests don't provide an accurate reflection of "real-world" safety performance.

    SEDANS

    TOP FIVE WEIGHT/SCORE

    • Audi A8 3,751/135.51
    • Volvo S80 3,698/133.60
    • Ford Crown Victoria
    • Mercury Grand Marquis (tie) 3,951/133.32
    • Chevrolet Impala 3,454/124.78
    • Lincoln Town Car 4,087/118.12

    BOTTOM FIVE WEIGHT/SCORE

    • Chevrolet Cavalier
    • Pontiac Sunfire (tie) 2,750/61.71
    • Chevrolet Metro 1,986/57.40
    • Hyundai Elantra 2,706/56.78
    • Nissan Sentra 2,452/56.01
    • Ford Escort 2,458/53.28

    WE WERE SURPRISED TO SEE so many sedans hold their own against vans and SUVs. These include not only the higher-end Audi A8 and Volvo S80 but also less-fashionable models, such as the Mercury Grand Marquis and the Chevrolet Lumina. Even in the middle deciles, sedans such as the Honda Accord and Mitsubishi Galant scored right alongside the Dodge Durango 4X4 and the Nissan Frontier extended-cab pickup. The reason so many sedans did so well is that they have enough bulk to allow for lots of crush space, which is an especially critical factor in side-impact crashes.

    Still some of the safest sedans probably aren't included in our index, reflecting the federal safety agency's limited crash-testing of expensive luxury cars. The Cadillac Seville, the Jaguar XJ-series, the Lexus LS400 and the Lincoln Continental, for example, all weigh more than our highly rated Audi A8. Most of these luxury brands also tend to come packed with the latest expensive safety equipment, including side airbags, which help enormously in a side-impact crash test.

    At the bottom of the list are small cars that didn't do that well in crash tests, don't weigh much and don't have much space to handle side-impact collisions. Once such car, the Nissan Sentra, is expected to have a new design in February-although a Nissan spokesman notes that the car already complies with all government safety standards. A Ford spokesman says the company is trying to improve the crash-test performance of the Escort-both the sedan and coupe versions-which has a relatively old design.

    The Metro ranks low-despite its four-star crash-test scores-because it is the lightest vehicle in our index. At less than 2,000 pounds, the Metro is about one-third the size of the biggest SUVs and 400 pounds lighter than the next-smallest car.

    Hyundai says its Elantra meets or exceeds federal safety standards. It also argues that our methodology overstates the importance of vehicle weight.

    PICKUPS

    TOP FOUR WEIGHT/SCORE

    • Dodge Ram Extended 4,884/141.50
    • Dodge Dakota Extended -Cab 3,765/117.79
    • Dodge Ram Quad-Cab 3,926/116.04
    • Ford F-150 3,926/116.04

    BOTTOM FOUR WEIGHT/SCORE

    • Nissan Frontier Extended-Cab 3,691/88.71
    • Nissan Frontier 2,816/71.04
    • GMC Sonoma Extended-Cab
    • Chevy S-10 Extended-Cab 3,536/63.65
    • Toyota Tacoma Extended-Cab 2,910/63.29

    PICKUPS HAVE AN UNUSUAL place in our index: Some rank among the safest vehicles, others among the least safe. The big Dodge and Ford pickups rank well because of their size-4,000 to 5,000 pounds- and their solid crash scores. On the other hand, some of the smaller pickups-the GMC Sonoma, the Chevy S-10 and the Toyota Tacoma-wound up with rankings lower than those of many cars.

    Absent from our ranking are the newly introduced Chevrolet Silverado and the GMC Sierra, which weigh nearly 4,000 pounds. The federal safety agency conducted crash test of them this year, but the results were inconclusive and are scheduled to be redone next month.

    The two versions of the Frontier rank in the bottom among pickups despite three-star and four-star crash-test results. The reason: Their relatively low weights suggest that they man not hold up in a high-way accident as well as they do against the fixed barriers used in the crash tests. A Nissan spokesman says the pickups comply with all government safety rules and meet the company's own "rigorous" internal safety standards.

    Toyota observes that what really hurt the Tacoma's rating was a one-star performance in the government's side-impact test. "We expected a three-star result, and we got a one, and we are looking into why," a spokesman said.

    COUPES

    TOP FIVE WEIGHT/SCORE

    • Pontiac Firebird
    • Chevrolet Camaro (tie) 3,336/93.51
    • Toyota Camry Solar 3,254/88.54
    • Volkswagen Beetle 2,886/88.30
    • Honda Accord 3,175/85.29
    • Ford Mustang 3,118/82.68

    BOTTOM THREE WEIGHT/SCORE

    • Honda Civic 2,352/57.57
    • Chevrolet Cavalier
    • Pontiac Sunfire (tie) 2,708/49.88
    • Ford EscortZX2 2,541/45.60

    AS A GROUP, coupes tend to be lighter than similar sedans, reducing their relative crashworthiness. For example, even though it got four-star ratings in the frontal-crash test, the popular Honda Civic ranks near the bottom, largely because it weighs only 2,352 pounds. That's 1,500 pounds lighter than a lot of sedans. With only one star out of five on the government's critical driver-side-impact test, the coupe versions of the Chevrolet Cavalier and Pontiac Sunfire and the Ford Escort ZX2 rank even lower.

    Honda and Ford both say that their car5s comply with all safety regulations and that the companies believe them to be safe.

    But there were some anomalies among the coupes as well. Based on real-world accident records, for example, the Chevrolet Camaro has the highest driver death rate of any vehicle, with fatalities attributed to rollovers that are four times the national average.

    Yet the Camaro an its sister car, the Pontiac Firebird (which also has a poor accident record), are the highest-rated coupes in our index, with safety scores just below the overall average. This reflects the cars better-than-average crash-test scores and their relative heft compared with other coupes. Safety experts say the Camaro's unusually high death-rate record reflects not so much the coupe itself by the poor driving habits of its predominantly young, single and sometimes hard-drinking male drivers.

    This paradox underscores one of the difficulties with studying real-world accident data for clues about the safety of individual vehicles: The records are heavily tainted by driver behavior. "If they could talk." Says David Harless, an economist at Virginia Commonwealth University, "these cars might say, 'I'm not bad, I'm just driven that way.'"

    HOW WE COMPILED OUR INDEX

    WE STARTED with the basics: the four separate annual crash tests performed by the government on most new-model vehicles. Using dummies, these tests gauge the risk of serious injury to occupants in four types of situations: the driver and front-seat passenger in side-impact collisions. The agency then awards each vehicle anywhere from one star (indicating high risk) to five stars (indicating low risk) in each situation.

    We combined the four separate crash-test results into a single rating using a mathematical formula developed by General Motors Corp. This formula factors in the statistical likelihood of the two types of collisions-head-on and side-impact-and the relative exposure to harm of each occupant. For example, according to federal accident data, head-on collisions are twice as common on the road as side-impact collisions.

    But even the adjusted crash-testing rating doesn't tell you how a vehicle will do in a real-life crash. The problem is that the government crashes every vehicle into the same fixed barrier, providing little or no indication of how it will fare in a collision against a much bigger or much smaller model-or at different speeds. So to account for industry and government officials' view that extra weight is what ultimately makes the difference on the road, we multiplied each vehicle's combined star rating by its weight, measured in thousands of pounds.

    Finally, we converted the resulting scores into an index that sets the average safety score of all the vehicles we ranked at 100. This scale makes it easy to see where a vehicle ranks relative to the average. But it isn't intended to suggest that a vehicle with an indexed score of, say 150 is twice as safe as one with 75.

    One note: GM has proposed its single-rating formula to the government as part of an effort to expand the current federal safety ratings to include a broader set of criteria. Because GM believes that comprehensive safety rankings should encompass many variables that can't currently be measured, it hasn't endorsed our approach. While GM SUVs garnered several of the top slots in our index, they landed there primarily because of their weight- and not because of GM's formula.

    To view the complete list of car data, click here!


     
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