WASHINGTON - The first five vehicles given frontal-impact crash tests by the federal government in the 2001 model year all got the highest possible scores for protecting both the driver and passenger.
One of the five - the Honda Civic two-door - also got the highest possible scores for the driver and rear passenger in a side-impact test.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which conducts the crashes, gives ratings of one to five stars for the amount of protection provided to crash dummies in the tests, which are part of the New Car Assessment Program. Five stars are best.
'That's no accident,' said NHTSA spokesman Tim Hurd when he was asked about the rash of five-star ratings.
He said manufacturers paid for most of the initial crashes in the 2001 round of testing. Some companies that had improved their vehicles wanted to publicize the expected good ratings to potential customers and not wait for regularly scheduled tests, he said.
The companies' eagerness to get 2001 test results is the latest evidence that they have turned a government program once seen as burdensome into a marketing tool. More companies are using the scores in advertising.
The Honda Civic two-door got five-star ratings for all four tested positions - driver and front passenger in a frontal impact and driver and rear passenger in a side impact.
Others with five-star ratings for both the driver and passenger in a frontal impact were the Honda Civic four-door, Lincoln Town Car, Nissan Quest and Volvo S80.
Manufacturers paid for all of those tests, Hurd said.
The Civic, Town Car and Quest all received higher scores than in previous years.
NHTSA previously rated the S80 only for side impact in 1999 and 2000, when it got two five-star scores. Those scores will be carried over. So the 2001 S80, like the Civic two-door, will have four five-star ratings in NHTSA brochures and on its Web site, www.nhtsa.dot.gov.
For the frontal test, vehicles are crashed at 35 mph into a solid barrier. For the side impact, a deformable barrier is rammed at 38.5 mph into the sides of vehicles.
BUSY CRASH SEASON
Even without manufacturers paying to get to the head of the line for crash tests, NHTSA has been planning a busy year for the New Car Assessment Program.
Because there was room in the federal budget and because safety is high on the public's mind, Congress agreed to double funding for the program in 2001 to $5.5 million.
NHTSA is planning 113 crashes for the 2001 model year, nearly double last year's total.
But the agency will not be able to pay more than sticker prices for the test vehicles it buys. After NHTSA paid $10,000 over sticker for each of two Chrysler PT Cruisers last summer, Congress put a prohibition against such practices in this year's transportation spending law.