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Safety Data Give SUVs Poor Grade In Rollover Tests

Of Popular Models, More Than a Third Are Prone To Problem in New Rankings

Aug 10, 2004 | Wall Street Journal

More than a third of the most popular 2004-model sport-utility vehicles show a tendency to roll over, federal car-safety regulators said yesterday, giving auto makers another dent in their SUV lines.

Of the 36 SUVs tested on a track for their inclination to roll over, 13 tipped up on two wheels the first step in a rollover. The tests were performed by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which has been criticized for issuing potentially confusing test results on SUVs earlier this year because so many vehicles were getting the same scores. Yesterday's results were the federal agency's attempt to offer clearer comparisons.

Detroit is already suffering from slowing SUV sales, while high gasoline prices and safety concerns have made many Americans rethink their ardor for the vehicles. And even though the new safety results could help car buyers choose the safest SUVs, they also put sobering stress on the safety question. That could make it even harder for auto makers, already forced to provide costly discounts and low-interest financing, to move these vehicles off dealer lots.

The SUV slowdown is a remarkable turnabout for a segment of the industry that was once one of the auto makers' strongest profit centers. Pressure, though, has increased as Japanese auto makers have brought out competitive models and as external forces mostly safety concerns and gas prices have taken greater hold. More people are now defecting from traditional truck-based SUVs than ever; about 40% of people are trading in a truck-based SUV for something else, according to Art Spinella, president of CNW Marketing Research. That compares with about 8% in 1999. The defections partly reflect concerns about rollovers, he said.

Earlier this year, the NHTSA estimated that 4,451 people died last year in SUV accidents, an 11% increase from 2002. Rollovers occurred in about 61% of those fatal accidents. Tomorrow, the agency is expected to announce final traffic-fatality figures for 2003 that are significantly lower than the previous estimate of 43,220 and lower than the total of 42,815 deaths reported in 2002. A larger-than-expected drop in the number of alcohol-related fatalities is expected to be cited as one reason for the lower numbers.

The NHTSA's new test has already had an effect on one auto maker. Last week, General Motors Co. recalled 250,000 Saturn Vues, after the SUV's left rear suspension system failed during NHTSA's new rollover test. The auto maker hasn't yet said how much that recall will cost.

Through July, sales of traditional, truck-based SUVs were up just 1.3%, according to Ward's Automotive Reports. And even those higher sales were heavily driven by incentives, such as big "cash back" awards. In fact, incentives are what are stabilizing the traditional SUV market right now. Mr. Spinella points to the Chevrolet Tahoe, noting that GM is giving $5,000 cash back and dealers he's hearing from are adding another $5,000 out of their own profit. "If you're getting a $10,000 discount on a Tahoe, you're going to pull somebody into the segment that was otherwise thinking of a big station wagon," said Mr. Spinella.

Sales of car-based SUVs, or crossovers, are up 16% this year, and have been selling with lower incentives than their traditional counterparts. In June and July, crossovers carried an average cash rebate of just $2,100, compared with $3,500 for all SUVs and $4,300 for full-size SUVs, according to Power Information Network, an affiliate of researcher J.D. Power and Associates.

Ford Motor Co., for one, has been hurt by these new auto economics. In the late 1990s, profits from its best-selling Explorer and other SUVs allowed the company to expand its lineup, acquiring Volvo and Land Rover. Currently, Ford is offering $4,500 cash back for the Explorer.

Yesterday's rankings by the NHTSA could add to Ford's problems. The company's SUVs rated among the lowest in the test. Only its Volvo XC90 achieved a four-star rating.

"This will basically end up being a giant negative for Ford," Mr. Spinella said. He pointed to the two-wheel-drive Explorer Sport Trac, which came in last in the rankings and was given almost a 35% chance of rolling over in a single-vehicle crash.

"Our real-world data do not suggest that the [Explorer Sport Trac] performs worse than comparable vehicle makes and types," said Kristen Kinley, a Ford spokeswoman. "With regard to the rating system as a whole, while we believe the NHTSA rating system has some value, we don't think it's the most effective indicator of how vehicles perform in the real world," Ms. Kinley said.

Rollovers have been on drivers' minds since the summer of 2000, when Ford Explorers equipped with Firestone tires began rolling over with such frequency and force that Congress investigated. Nearly 300 people died in Explorers with those tires. Since then, the industry has done several things to address rollovers, including lowering a vehicle's center of gravity and giving more SUVs independent suspension, which helps stabilize the vehicle.

Late last month Ford announced it would make rollover sensors and electronic stability control standard on the Explorer as well as the Mercury Mountaineer and the Lincoln Aviator and Navigator. The technologies detect if a vehicle is starting to roll and begin a series of countermeasures, including applying brakes to individual wheels. In the 2004 Explorer, the system cost $795.

Jim Padilla, Ford's chief operating officer, said last week that Ford made the change because it puts Ford "ahead of the pack." He added that it "makes a safe vehicle even safer."

Perhaps most damaging for Ford, its popular small Escape SUV was among the vehicles that tipped up on two wheels in the new test. The Escape was one of the first American SUVs to be built on a car underbody, and helped pave the way for the fastest-growing segment of the new-car market, crossover vehicles.

Their popularity has been driven, in part, by the perception that such vehicles are less prone to rollovers. In 2000, auto makers sold fewer than 500,000 crossovers, but demand is expected to grow to 2.5 million vehicles a year by 2008, according to CSM Worldwide.

While the Escape didn't perform well, other crossover vehicles generally scored high in the NHTSA's new ratings. The highest-ranking SUVs in the rollover ratings, including the Chrysler Pacifica, Nissan Murano and Honda Pilot, are all built on car platforms.

Mike Jackson, a senior manager in charge of North American vehicle forecasts at automotive consulting company CSM Worldwide, believes it's "too early to tell" how NHTSA's new information on the Ford Escape's rollover propensity may affect sales but added that Ford will have to do everything it can to defend its safety image.

"Ford wants to make sure that its SUVs continue to be perceived as safe in every respect, especially following its situation with the Explorer," Mr. Jackson said. "They should go out of their way."

The NHTSA released the detailed rollover crash results yesterday partly to ward off criticism that it hasn't done enough to force auto makers to make SUVs more resistant to rollovers. Dr. Jeffrey Runge, the NHTSA's administrator and a former emergency physician, says he favors providing consumers with more information about rollover likelihood than issuing new rollover-resistance standards.

"We think we can accomplish a lot with consumer information, with educating the public," Dr. Runge says. The agency plans to expand the program eventually to also include detailed rankings on front- and side-crash resistance.

The government also released rollover results yesterday for 20 passenger cars, eight pickups and four vans. Only one vehicle the four-door Mazda RX-8 received a five-star rating, the highest. None of the passenger cars or minivans tipped up during testing. Only two trucks tipped up -- the Tacoma 4x2 and 4x4 extended-cab pickups.

Until this year, government rollover ratings were based on mathematical tests, not test-drive results. The agency now uses a so-called fishhook test, in which the vehicle moves at a steady speed of 35 miles per hour to 50 mph while the driver first makes a sharp left turn, then overcorrects to the right. Auto makers complain the test is overly harsh and represents only about 5% of what happens in real-world rollover crashes, since most SUVs roll over after they run off the road or hit a curb or another object. The government compensates for that concern by weighting the test less than its mathematical test in the vehicle's overall rollover score.

Concern about rollover resistance is growing because there are simply more SUVs and light trucks on the roads. About 40% of all vehicles on U.S. roads are light trucks including minivans, SUVs and pickups. With light trucks outpacing passenger cars in sales, manufacturers and federal regulators are turning more attention to electronic stability-control systems that can help drivers maintain control and avoid a crash. Federal regulators are now working on a new test that would evaluate the vehicle's handling; however, NHTSA officials say there's no assurance yet they'll actually adopt the new test.

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