What to Know: Five-Star Ratings


With automobiles getting larger and popularity of crossovers and SUVs soaring, many people believe they need to buy increasingly larger cars to stay safe in a car accident. While options, good looks, and the right price are all very important factors in choosing a new car, safety is still of utmost importance for most car buyers. In pretty much any form of car advertisement, you’ll notice car company after car company displaying their new vehicle’s “five-star crash test rating,” with some brands like Volvo and Mercedes-Benz making safety their brand’s focus. What exactly goes into a five-star rating, and how should that affect a new car purchase?

These five-star ratings come from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, a government organization responsible for ensuring public safety on our highways and decreasing the number of traffic related fatalities. “NHTSA is part of the federal government, and our funding is allocated by Congress,” explains NHTSA spokesperson Rae Tyson. The NHTSA has been testing front-side impact since 1978 for the 1979 model year, and side impact since 1996 for the 1997 model year. In 2001, it introduced the rollover test. All of these crash test ratings are on a five-star scale.

In order to make sure that the reviews remain accurate and do not get interfered with by the manufacturers, NHTSA procures their test vehicles at random without the knowledge of the manufactures. In this way, they get a real sample of everyday vehicles, not reinforced vehicles sent by manufactures that could alter the results of the NHTSA safety test.

NHTSA administers the tests of vehicles in three different ways. Each category can receive a maximum of 5 stars, with the frontal crash test examining the risk of head and chest injury, the side crash test looking at risk of chest injury, and the rollover test gauging a vehicle’s stability. Certain cars are more prone to certain categories, like large trucks and SUVs that are more likely to rollover than their sedan and sports car counterparts, however every vehicle is tested for such safety concerns as these are issues that do not only occur in larger cars.

The best thing potential buyers can do is to look at the numbers published online via publications from the IIHS, NHTSA, and resources like safercar.gov to find out how well a car compares to their competitors. These sites organize the information based off car size, making it easy to compare similar models that most buyers would be cross-shopping, like a Toyota Corolla and Honda Civic.

There is also the strides in technology year-after-year that is making it harder and harder to piece out which models are safer than others, as most manufacturers have been working tirelessly to make their cars safer. NHTSA is working on making the tests more rigorous, as most of the vehicles being tested are  getting such good crash test scores that new methods are are being improvised on a top-to- bottom review to figure out ways to make the testing much tougher. In addition, features like electronic stability control, anti-lock brakes, side impact protection, and curtain airbags, which used to be added options, are now becoming standard on most cars. While equipment like side airbags are not a government requirement, they are an option well worth having.

One of the most common misconceptions about automotive safety is about smaller cars being unsafe. Although there are some safer small cars in the market, it is imperative to understand that there are vehicles that are safer than others in every size range.

The IIHS breaks it’s top choices down into two categories, Top Safety Pick (TSP) or Top Safety Pick Plus (TSP+). Some of the safer small cars for 2017, based off the IIHS website, include the 2017 MINI Cooper, Acura ILX, Chevrolet Volt, Hyundai Elantra, and Kia Forte. Mid- and full-size vehicles with higher ratings include 2017 Honda Accord, 2018 Hyundai Sonata, Toyota Avalon, and Audi A4.

When it comes to 2017 SUVs, there are several notable models that prioritize safety. It is important to note that these ratings are often based on models equipped with optional safety equipment. A few models that earned high marks are the 2017 Honda CR-V, Mazda CX-5, Honda Pilot, Kia Sorento, Acura MDX, and Audi Q7

With so many safe models on the market, it feels like there may not be any poorly rated cars in production anymore. While there are still some two or three starred cars, continual improvements in technology and stark competition means automakers no longer have excuses for making unsafe vehicles.


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