NCAP stars lose their sparkle

Safety tests sell cars, but are they reliable, asks Alistair Weaver
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The birth of the European New Car Assessment Programme (Euro NCAP) in 1997 thrust the subject of safety to the top of the motoring agenda. For the first time, Europe had a system of independent crash-testing that would allow consumers to assess the protection offered by their choice of car. Today, a maximum five-star Euro NCAP rating is not just a badge of honour for a major manufacturer; it can be a passport to increased sales.

The birth of the European New Car Assessment Programme (Euro NCAP) in 1997 thrust the subject of safety to the top of the motoring agenda. For the first time, Europe had a system of independent crash-testing that would allow consumers to assess the protection offered by their choice of car. Today, a maximum five-star Euro NCAP rating is not just a badge of honour for a major manufacturer; it can be a passport to increased sales.

Few would argue that the assessments have been a force for good, but some industry experts are concerned that too much emphasis is being placed on the NCAP star ratings, and that the significance of the test results is being badly communicated. And much of their criticism focuses on Euro NCAP's methodology.

The assessments cover three types of impact: a frontal impact into a deformable barrier at 40mph; a 30mph side impact "sled test"; and an 18mph side impact into a static pole. "These tests are not an overall indicator of car safety," says the AA Motoring Trust's head of technical policy, Chris Patient. "At a push, you could say that they indicate which vehicle would offer the best protection in a specific accident."

The tests are also carried out on just one variant - the biggest- selling model as defined by the manufacturer. When Renault launched the Modus supermini, it was able to claim a maximum five-star Euro NCAP rating, but the model tested featured curtain airbags not fitted to the entry-level Authentique. The entry-level car is thus not a five-star car, and this message has been badly communicated.

The company's website says that the Modus is "at the cutting edge of technology, proven by its five-star Euro NCAP award, making it the safest car in its class", before stating that "the Modus can be fitted with up to six adaptive airbags". Of the seven Renault dealers we spoke to, six claimed the Authentique was a five-star car, and that the safety kit was "one of the core features". A Renault spokes-man said that the Authentique would almost certainly have had curtain airbags if NCAP had insisted on testing the entry-level model, but pointed out that the variant accounts for only 1.2 per cent of Modus sales.

Adrian Hobbs, Euro NCAP's secretary general, accepts that there is a problem. "On our website, we explain to consumers both the format of the tests and which vehicle we tested," he says, "but manufacturers advertise the result as a safety rating for a model. If we insisted on a change, we'd lose the publicity. It is a problem we need to think carefully about in the future."

Hobbs also accepts that many consumers fail to understand that the results cannot be compared from class to class. Several of the Renault dealers we spoke to, for example, were adamant that the tests were comparable, and that a Modus was as safe as a Laguna because both had achieved an identical rating. This is almost certainly not the case, and, generally, larger, heavier cars still protect their occupants better than smaller and lighter ones.

BMW, Ford and the AA are all calling for the NCAP tests to be extended to take account of primary safety features, such as electronic stability programmes. "If a vehicle scored very well in primary (active) safety and 90 per cent in secondary (passive) safety, then the consumer would know that it's a good, safe car," says BMW spokesman Friedbert Holz.

Finding the correct balance will not be easy, but something needs to done if Euro NCAP's reputation is to be protected. As criticism grows, it would be sad if the organisation became a victim of its own success.

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