Car safety rating: Does a poor safety rating mean a car isn’t safe?

The Ford Mustang, that classic icon of all-American freedom has been brought crashing down to Earth this week when the crash test experts at EuroNCAP gave it a two-star (out of a possible five-star) rating for safety. That’s the lowest score given to a mainstream car maker in almost a decade, and one that has the potential to put a significant dent in Mustang sales on this side of the Atlantic.
It’s questionable, we suppose, whether or not someone deeply enamoured of the Mustang’s style and image will pay much attention to some European safety technocrats and their car safety ratings, but it bears having a look at what they had to say about the Mustang’s safety performance, not least because Ford’s current policy of designing cars for global, not regional, markets should mean that all its cars have roughly similar safety levels.

Influencing factors in the score

car safety rating 4NCAP says that the Mustang’s rating was affected by such matters as “the driver's head had 'bottomed out' the airbag i.e. there was insufficient pressure in the airbag to prevent the head from contacting the steering wheel through the deflated airbag material. The head of the passenger dummy also bottomed out the airbag against the dashboard, owing to insufficient inflation of the airbag and inadequate restraint for larger statures by the front passenger seatbelt load-limiter. The scores of both the driver and passenger were penalised for the airbag performance.” More seriously, rear-seat passengers (which, let’s face it, are nine times out of ten going to be kids) was quite compromised, with NCAP reporting that “the rear seat passenger slipped under the lap portion of the seatbelt (a phenomenon known as 'submarining') and the score for the knee, femur and pelvis body region was penalised and protection was rated as poor.” Ouch. Whiplash protection was also criticised, although NCAP was quick to point out that some of that was down to the Mustang not currently being fitted with an autonomous emergency braking system, which will come as standard equipment on the updated model later this year.

Differing market tests

car safety rating 2Speaking to TheCarExpert website in the aftermath of the results being released Matthew Avery, director of research at safety experts Thatcham said that “what really concerns me is that Ford has made a deliberate choice. The car has been designed to score well in less wide-ranging US consumer safety tests and only minor updates have been made to meet required European (pedestrian) safety regulations. This has resulted in poor adult and child protection scores and the high-tech radar collision warning system, that is available to US consumers, not being available here in the Europe. The two-star Euro NCAP rating is the consequence.”
We’ve been in a somewhat similar situation before. In the early 2000s, both Kia and Chrysler were given very poor scores by NCAP for the crash test performance of their big MPVs, the Sedona and the Voyager. Indeed, at one point, NCAP said that the Voyager was so unsafe that it was unsuitable for family use, which was a serious accusation as that was the very purpose for which it was designed. Both Kia and Chrysler hit back by saying that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), America’s dual equivalents to EuroNCAP, had passed both vehicles as being safe for use. The IIHS rates the Mustang as being Good or Acceptable in all its various test metrics, so there’s a clear variance with US and European testing.

Differing tests

Are we Europeans simply fussier about our tests? Or are we more strict with our criteria? It’s neither one nor the other – the NCAP criteria are simply different to those in the US. NCAP tests focus on three main impacts –– a frontal impact into a deformable barrier and side impacts with a flat surface and a pole. The US, tests are more geared towards frontal impacts with another vehicle, so the results are subtly different.


car safety rating 3Does a poor NCAP rating mean that you should stop buying a Mustang, or any other car that gets marked down? That’s debatable to say the least. Certainly, the guys at NCAP know what they’re doing, and brush off criticisms that car makers are specifically designing cars around the test metrics because they say those metrics are designed to be applicable in the real world, and are the key areas for helping to prevent death and injury. Indeed, there’s a clear correlation in a reduction of deaths on Irish roads from the time of the first five-star NCAP result, which was the Renault Laguna back in 2001. Clearly, other factors are at work, but there’s no denying that the peak in Irish road deaths in the early 2000s saw a distinct drop-off once five-star cars became more widespread. So yes, it’s worth paying attention to what the EuroNCAP results say.
Equally, there’s a context for everything. The Mustang had two significant faults, in its airbags and its rear seatbelts, which may or may not occur out in the real world, or which may be irrelevant to all but the specific requirements of the EuroNCAP test. And if you’re trading out of a pre-2005 car into a Mustang (unlikely, but stick with me…) then you are almost unquestionably getting a safer car. Have a look at the impact video on the NCAP website and notice how untouched the main passenger compartment is by the impact. There are nuances to safety, but a key signifier is keeping that door opening and roof shape steady under the loads of a crash — that’s what saves lives in extremis.
Is the Mustang a safe car? Yes, it undoubtedly is. But it could, clearly, be safer still and that is the key role of the EuroNCAP programme — to chivvy and hassle the car makers into making greater efforts to keep us all safe.