Why your old five-star NCAP car isn’t as safe as you think it is

How have the NCAP tests changed over the years
by Craig Jamieson | Feb 10, 2019
PHOTO: TopGear.com

It isn’t for the purposes of adolescent glee that the New Car Assessment Program (NCAP) flings perfectly good cars at exceptionally solid objects, and vice-versa. Over the past two decades, car-crash fatalities have dropped from around 60,000 a year across Europe to less than 30,000. And those two decades just happen to coincide with the Euro NCAP.

Since its inception in 1997, the NCAP star rating has grown to encompass a complex matrix of active and passive safety systems, which, to some of you, is a bridge too far. If you read the comments on our story and on Euro NCAP’s YouTube, the Fiat Panda’s recently acquired zero-star rating doesn’t come off so much as Fiat’s fault as Euro NCAP’s.

That got us wondering: How have the tests changed over the years? Why isn’t an old five-star car as safe as a new one? And why did the Panda get a zero-star rating?

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1997: Euro NCAP releases its first results

Tests: Frontal offset, side impact, rating for adult occupants and pedestrians

On reflection, the requirements for new-car safety in the mid-’90s were dismal. As a contemporary Top Gear TV spot said, “Under current crash-test legislation, cars are driven into a solid concrete block at 30mph. The manufacturers are only required to ensure that the steering column moves less than five inches, which doesn’t mirror real life very accurately. But testing is about to get much tougher...new comparative crash tests, starting with the most popular group of cars sold in Britain: superminis.”

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The report went on to detail the tests that now seem almost second nature to us—offset frontal crashes, side impacts, special mannequins with accelerometers in them to measure forces and stresses, and high-speed cameras to capture the carnage. This was the metal-bending and glass-shattering debut of the Euro New Car Assessment Program.

As NCAP’s archival footage shows, the Rover 100 was famously bad. But it was in no way the only offender—the Fiat Punto’s dashboard detached, the Renault Clio’s steering column wrenched into the cabin (which fired the airbag off in a way that could fire your head into the A-pillar), the Vauxhall Corsa’s door concertinaed, and the Nissan Micra followed suit. Looking at them with the benefit of two decades’ hindsight, these do not look like safe cars.

The Corsa, the Micra, the Clio, and the Punto scored two stars; the Rover 100 just one. The Ford Fiesta and the VW Polo scored three apiece, still from a maximum of five.

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As the year progressed, NCAP tested more and more cars, but none managed more than a three-star rating. Coincidentally enough, 1997 also marks the first year that Euro NCAP faced a backlash about its testing procedures being too severe. The argument was that no car could ever score four out of five stars for safety. But in July 1997, the Volvo S40 recorded a four-star result.

2001: The world’s first five-star car

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Tests: Frontal offset, side impact, side impact pole, rating for adult occupants and pedestrians

Four years after NCAP’s first run of results, its engineers finally tested the first five-star car. And that’s despite new tests that sought to emulate a car sliding into a pole. Unlike a wider barrier, the pole doesn’t allow the energy of the impact to be spread over a large cross-section of the car, instead delivering it all in one pole-shaped hit.

What would a 2001 Renault Laguna score if it were tested again today? Well, according to Aled Williams, program manager at NCAP, “One star at best, and probably zero.” The frontal offset test hasn’t changed since 1997 (but will soon), so the Laguna would still do well. The full-width frontal and side-impact tests have moved on in the interim, however, which Williams reckons the Laguna would “struggle with.” Then there’s its lack of stability control, let alone anything like autonomous emergency braking.

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But cars were getting safer, and, by 2001 standards, a star rating to suit—more five-star cars started emerging from Renault and other manufacturers, and the paradigm shifted. Williams explains it best: “The objection at the start was that manufacturers with a reputation for safety could stand to lose that reputation if tests showed their cars weren’t as safe as they claimed,” he says. “But other manufacturers saw it as a way to earn a reputation for safety, and, little by little, they saw the marketing benefit of a truly safe car.”

2003: Child safety scores as separate star rating

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Tests: Frontal offset, side impact, side impact pole, rating for adult occupants, child occupants, and pedestrians

By 2003, manufacturers were recording reliably solid results for adult occupant protection. But safety for children was still lagging. To address this, Euro NCAP introduced a separate child safety rating in 2003 to draw more attention to child safety in cars. 

That said, testing on child safety—including child seats and in-car provisions for kids—had been ongoing since 1997.

2008: Rear-impact whiplash

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Tests: Frontal offset, side impact, side impact pole, whiplash, rating for adult occupants, child occupants, and pedestrians

Whiplash—it’s rarely fatal, but it’s exactly as debilitating as “rapid and excessive distortion of the spine” sounds. To make sure car seats stand up to rear impacts in a way that leaves your spine as nature intended, Euro NCAP set up special sleds with mounting points for various OEM seats. Testing began at the end of 2008, with first results in 2009. But that was about to be overshadowed by the biggest shake-up in Euro NCAP’s history.

2009: Pedestrian safety, separate ratings combined into a single result

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Tests: Frontal offset, side impact, side impact pole, whiplash; rating for adult occupants, child occupants, active safety, and pedestrians combined in one aggregate star rating

“Safety has been changing,” said Michiel van Ratingen, head of Euro NCAP, in 2009. 

“Ten years ago, when we talked about a safe car, we talked about a car that’s able to protect its occupants in a crash. Now, we talk about a car that avoids an accident in the first place with technology such as ESC, and when there is a crash, it ought to protect the occupants as well—there is a holistic view of safety.”

To wit, Euro NCAP rolled four separate ratings—adult occupant, child occupant, pedestrian, and active safety—into one overall rating. So, without high scores in every discipline, a car could no longer be called safe.

2011: Electronic stability control testing

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Tests: Frontal offset, side impact, side impact pole, whiplash; rating for adult occupants, child occupants, active safety (including ESC testing), and pedestrians combined in one aggregate star rating

Euro NCAP had been rewarding Electronic Stability Control fitment since 2009, but 2011 saw the introduction of the short-lived ESC test, which simulated an emergency steering situation by using a rig to violently turn the steering wheel 270 degrees one way, then the same the other. Testers found one very obvious result and one that was perhaps less obvious: Having ESC was safer than not having it, which stands to reason, but it didn’t really matter who made the ESC system or to which car it was fitted. So, once ESC became mandatory across the UK and Europe, NCAP retired the test.

2015: Side-impact pole test changed

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Tests: Frontal offset, side impact, side impact pole, whiplash; rating for adult occupants, child occupants, active safety, and pedestrians combined in one aggregate star rating

The original pole test had the car sliding in and hitting a pole at a perfect horizontal broadside. But that’s not really how crashes happen in the real world. So the test changed, replacing the dead-on hit with an oblique, 15-degree angle that better reflects when push comes to almighty shove.

2016: Autonomous emergency braking

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Tests: Frontal offset, side impact, side impact pole, whiplash; rating for adult occupants, child occupants, active safety (including AEB), and pedestrians combined in one aggregate star rating

Autonomous emergency braking or AEB, perhaps more than any other technology, signified the impetus toward active safety. In no uncertain terms, the safest crash is the one you never have.

Williams says that while there aren’t clear differences in ESC performance, the same can’t be said of AEB, with its use of disparate technologies such as radar detection versus cameras and optical recognition software. “The evidence doesn’t suggest that one ESC system is safer than another, just that ESC is safer than not having it,” he explains. “There are differences in performance in AEB hardware and software, and we see clear indicators for real-world performance in our test—AEB is not AEB.”

2018: The Fiat Panda’s infamous zero-star result

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Tests: Frontal offset, frontal, side impact deformable, side impact pole, whiplash sled test for chairs, pedestrian head impact, pedestrian upper-leg impact, pedestrian lower-leg impact, AEB city braking test (50kph), AEB inter-urban test (80kph), AEB pedestrian avoidance (60kph), AEB pedestrian (walking out behind obstacle), AEB cyclist–perpendicular (45ph), AEB cyclist (60kph), lane-support system (single car, side road markings), lane-support system (oncoming car), lane-support system (center-line road marking)

Right at the tail end of 2017, when the Fiat Punto scored a zero-star rating, there was a small ripple of attention and one or two jokes at Fiat’s expense. But in 2018, when the otherwise entirely lovable Fiat Panda supermini got a flatline score, the reaction was very strong, and very much directed against Euro NCAP. But why did Euro NCAP retest the Panda in the first place?

“Fiat has nothing new on the horizon,” says Williams. “We contacted other manufacturers who all said they have new cars on the horizon with AEB, but Fiat didn’t. It’s not fair on consumers to see a star rating from so long ago and not see that it’s actually so different to its modern rivals.”

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So that’s it—Fiat’s selling a new car in 2018 that doesn’t stand up to the rigors of 2018 testing—without plans to modify the structure, nor fit more passive or active safety equipment. So in safety assistance—one of the four pillars of a five-star rating—the Panda and the Punto register respective scores of seven and zero out of 100.

For the sake of argument, let’s set aside active safety in its entirety and compare the passive safety scores with the Volvo XC40, which gets a five-star 2018 rating. The Panda gets a 45/100 score for adult occupants and just 16/100 for child occupant safety, and the Punto gets a comparatively excellent 51/100 and 43/100, respectively. The Volvo XC40, on the other hand, gets 97/100 and 87/100 in the same tests. These aren’t the kind of differences that are easy to shrug off.

It’s not just Volvos, either—as of writing, you can get a Mercedes-Benz, Mazda, Peugeot, Hyundai, Nissan, Audi, BMW, Volkswagen, Ford, and Jaguar with a five-star 2018 rating. 
But, Williams stresses, testing becomes more exacting and more involved with every year, and it’s best to compare apples with apples. A 2012 five-star car is not the same as a 2018 five-star car, and the pace of progress shows no signs of slowing.

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From here on in: Update to frontal offset crash test, increased focus on active safety systems, far-side occupant protection, automation testing

The frontal offset test is the only one that’s skated through from 1997, but it’s set to change in 2020. The gist is that while the current, immovable barrier does a good job of modeling what happens to the occupants of the car tested, it doesn’t offer much insight into the effects the car would have on the other car in a two-car crash. And that’s led current car development to favor a very aggressive, I’m-all-right-Jack approach to crashes. From 2020, Euro NCAP will reward cars that keep their occupants safe, without inflicting undue damage to everything else on the road. To achieve this, the offset barrier will now be mobile, and record the impact delivered by the cars tested.

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But the focus on what’s going on inside the car in question isn’t over yet. Where curtain airbags and anti-intrusion cells have improved your chances of surviving a T-bone if it hits your door, the far-side occupant—that is, the person next to you—hasn’t enjoyed the same focus on safety. Soon, Euro NCAP will test far-side occupant safety as well as near-side, or closest to the crash.

The Euro NCAP tests currently include a series of tests to evaluate how driver-assistance programs like adaptive cruise control and lane-keep assist react in emergency situations, including one that simulates someone else pulling into your lane at low speed, and another that simulates the car you’re following at a safe distance suddenly swerving to avoid a stationary car or object. But this’ll only get more involved as time goes on.

So far, according to Euro NCAP’s official line, it’s best not to think of any of these systems as proper automation. The only way to get out of situations like these, at least at the moment, is with human input. There’ll also be an update to the crash-test dummies, probably to reflect how we’re all carrying a bit of a spare tire these days. Metaphorically, obviously. Please do not use a steel-belted radial as a supplemental restraint system.

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Crash safety can still be improved,” says Williams. “We’re not at a stage where we’re as safe as we can be. The systems we’re pushing for now have a huge influence on driver safety.”

While it may seem like too much of an interference, an over-reliance on technology at the expense of driver control and skill, this is the kind of thing that works to avoid crashes in the first place. And, as we said, the safest crash is the one you never have. Not convinced? Think about it this way: How much would you like everyone else on the road to have systems on board that keep them in their lane, a safe distance from the car in front, and right in the middle of a safety net when their concentration wanes or they make a mistake?

Really, it’s hard to argue against roads filled with cars that keep their occupants out of harm’s way. It’s like immunization in that way—even if you don’t have it, the fact that everyone else does helps to keep you safe.

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“In the end,” says Williams, “Our raison d’être is to have the safest cars.”

NOTE: This article first appeared on TopGear.com. Minor edits have been made.

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PHOTO: TopGear.com
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