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Buying & Leasing a Car

Auto Safety Gets a Makeover

When every car gets five stars it's hard to know which are safest. So the feds are raising the bar.

So many carmakers brag about their vehicles' five-star crash-test results, you might think all cars score five stars on the government tests -- and you'd almost be right.Nearly every vehicle the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration tested in the 2010 model year earned a five-star rating for the frontal crash test.

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Simply put, manufacturers have learned how to ace the test. While it's a good thing that automakers have improved vehicle safety to meet the testing standards, when every car gets five stars it's hard to know which are actually the safest. So the feds are raising the bar for the 2011 model year. "As the program got a little older, carmakers got more data on how to do better on the tests, and everyone was beginning to perform better," says NHTSA administrator David Strickland. "We had to make changes to make manufacturers stretch a little further."

Limited rollout. One way NHTSA is making carmakers stretch is by creating a new test for side-impact resilience. The new test replicates a vehicle sliding broadside into a tree or telephone pole. The results will be combined with the current side-barrier test for an overall side-impact score. Test dummies are getting smarter, too. A smaller,"female" crash-test dummy is now being used alongside the standard "male" dummy, plus more areas of the dummies' bodies will be assessed for damage.

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Of the more than 250 2011 models, only 55 are being tested: 24 cars, 20 SUVs, two vans and nine pickup trucks. NHTSA says that these vehicles represent the most popular models and estimates that the tests will cover 60% of the market. For 2011 models that have not been tested, the window stickers say "Not rated." More models will be tested for the next model year.

All the current ratings information is available at www.safercar.gov.

Friendlier information. The window stickers of tested cars still display five separate scores, ranging from one to five stars -- scores for drivers and passengers in front crashes, scores for drivers and rear passengers in side crashes, and a score for rollover risk. But the stickers will be redesigned for the 2012 model year. NHTSA is adding an overall vehicle safety score of one to five stars. And the Environmental Protection Agency is weighing new labeling on the stickers for fuel economy, possibly including a letter grade.

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On SaferCar.gov, you can see which vehicles have accident-avoidance technologies. The list currently includes electronic stability control (to keep you traveling in the intended direction during sudden turns), forward-collision warning (to keep you a safe distance from the vehicle in front of you) and lane-departure warning (if you start to stray without using your signal indicator).

Stability control is the most widely available technology of the three and must be standard on all vehicles for the 2012 model year. Forward-collision warning and lane-departure warning are available mostly on luxury models but are starting to trickle down to nonluxury vehicles. Strickland says NHTSA will continue to add safety technologies, such as blind-spot warnings, to the recommended list as research proves their effectiveness.

Comparing cars. Because the tests have been altered so much, you shouldn't compare ratings from 2010 and previous years with the new scores. As with the old ratings, you can't compare vehicles from class to class on front crash-test results because tests simulate crashes between two vehicles of the same size. But you can compare how vehicles of different classes withstand side-impact crashes because all vehicles are hit with the same force. (You can compare rollover ratings across classes, too.) For vehicle ratings based on crash tests conducted by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, see www.iihs.org.

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