WASHINGTON - Insurance industry safety analysts believe the addition of a second sliding door to the 1999 Nissan Quest caused the vehicle to perform worse in offset crash testing than the design it replaced.
The Insurance Industry for Highway Safety, which conducted the tests, said its conclusion also applies to the nearly identical Mercury Villager.
The redesigned Quest/Villager was the only one of 10 new vehicles in the latest round of institute testing to get a lower score than its previous design. The minivan went from 'marginal' to 'poor,' largely because the space around the driver was not well maintained. Another factor was excessive steering-column movement, the institute said.
Even the 1999 Ford Windstar, which got the same 'good' score as the previously tested design, appeared to be somewhat weaker structurally with the addition of a sliding door on the driver's side, the institute said.
By contrast, the 1999 Honda Odyssey got a 'good' rating, two levels higher than the 'marginal' score assigned to the previous design, despite the addition of a rear door on the driver's side.
Consequently, the institute does not conclude that additional doors necessarily make minivans less safe, said Institute Vice President Julie Rochman. 'Obvi-ously it's something they can fix,' she said.
Gerry Tschopp, Nissan North America Inc. spokesman, said company engineers will evaluate the institute findings to see whether there is anything they should do in response. But, he said, Nissan is convinced the Quest is one of the safest minivans on the market, and the company encourages consumers to judge it on real-world crash results.
Despite the lower marks for the Quest/Villager, Institute President Brian O'Neill applauded car companies for taking offset crash tests into account during the design process - even though they are not required by federal law or regulation - and for generally improving the vehicle structures around passenger compartments.
'When major intrusion occurs, even the best restraint system cannot prevent injuries,' he said.
'It's the same concept as shipping a fragile object. It doesn't matter how well it's protected by foam or other packaging inside a box. If the box gets damaged or crushed during transit, the object is likely to break.'
In addition to the Honda Odyssey, new vehicles that scored higher than previous designs were the Mitsubishi Galant, Saab 9-3, Hyundai Sonata, Volkswagen Jetta and Golf and Dodge/Plymouth Neon.
In addition to the Ford Windstar, new vehicles that got ratings the same as previous designs were the Mazda Protege and Kia Sephia.
In the institute test, a vehicle is run at 40 mph into the corner of a deformable barrier so that it smashes the driver's side of the front.