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How safe is that car with a "5-star" crash-test rating?

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A five-star government crash-test rating should mean that new car you're eyeing is plenty safe, right? Not so fast, says advocacy group the Center for Auto Safety.

In connection with the release of the "2016 Car Book" by Jack Gillis, the center argues that the government rating system is too easy, noting that 99 percent of 2016 models tested got either four stars or the top five-star rating.

9 new cars to avoid (and 9 better alternatives)
9 new cars to avoid (and 9 better alternatives)

The issue, Gillis said, is that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration requires a car to meet only certain benchmarks in the tests rather than showing full comparative scores of vehicles in the same class.

"The fact is, each vehicle has a different score, and by putting the NHTSA results on a relative basis, consumers can easily see which are in the top 10 percent and which are in the bottom 10 percent," Gillis said.

He uses the example of midsize sedans Ford Fusion and Acura TLX, which both got five-star overall ratings from NHTSA. "But the driver of a Fusion is over more four times as likely to sustain a life-threatening injury due to a side impact," Gillis said.

He reached that conclusion by taking data on each test available from NHTSA's website and putting it through a complicated calculation to reach a rating of 1 to 10. On this scale, Gillis give the Acura sedan a 10 and the Ford Fusion a 6.

So what should you do if you're shopping for a car and safety is very important to you?

  • Start with the government website safercar.gov. If one vehicle you're considering has five stars and the another four or three, that may provide a starting point for your decision.
  • Get the "Car Book" interpretation of the NHTSA data, a list of Gillis' top-rated vehicles in various classes. The paperback edition is available on Amazon.
  • Also check the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety's crash-test ratings. Its engineers do a difficult "small overlap" front-end crash test that approximates one corner of a car hitting a tree or light pole. NHTSA doesn't include this test. To get the maximum rating, known as "top safety pick plus" from the IIHS, a vehicle must not only have strong crash-test results but also offer crash-avoidance features such as automatic braking to attempt avoiding a crash with the car just ahead.

NHTSA has said it plans improvements in its testing and ratings, including adding another crash test similar to the IIHS' small-overlap test and by rating crash-avoidance safety equipment. The new ratings, to begin in 2018 for 2019 models, will give star ratings independently for crashworthiness, crash avoidance and pedestrian protection when a vehicle strikes a pedestrian.

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