WASHINGTON -- The auto industry's best-selling SUV, the Ford Explorer, posted average scores in the government's most extensive analysis of its risk for rollover, figures showed Monday.
Explorer ratings are closely watched because of the vehicle's immense popularity and troubled history in rollover crashes as well as a greater propensity of SUVs to roll. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration chief Dr. Jeffrey Runge has made reducing SUV rollover deaths a priority.
The agency released long-delayed data on new rollover risk tests for the most popular Explorer models, showing they performed overall about the same as other vehicles in their class.
The Explorer was involved in most of the deadly rollover and other crashes blamed on defective Firestone tires. That debacle led to two massive tire recalls in 2000 and 2001. Explorer models in recent years have been redesigned with a lower center of gravity and other changes to reduce rollover.
The four-wheel and front-wheel drive Explorer, both four-door vehicles, scored a "three" in NHTSA's five-star rating system in which "five" is the best. A three-star rating means rollover risk is between 20 and 30 percent.
The front-wheel-drive vehicle earned an average rating even though it tipped on two wheels during the government's handling test.
"It was slowing to a stop and traveling less than 5 miles per hour when the rear-wheel lift occurred. From our perspective, the vehicle did very well," said Kristen Kinley, a Ford spokeswoman. "It's a tough test."
Kinley said the 2005 Explorers will feature technology that will activate braking systems when sensors indicate a rollover is imminent.
Ford's Mercury Mountaineer SUV series is built on the same frame as the Explorer and posted the same results in rollover tests.
SUVs represent about a quarter of vehicles sold in the United States. Studies have shown them to be far more likely than cars to be involved in fatal rollovers. Rollovers represent about 3 percent of crashes, but about a third of deaths in passenger vehicles. SUVs are considered more rollover prone because of their high center of gravity.
Consumer and safety groups have long targeted SUVs as unsafe and are pressuring the government to require tougher design standards. Congressional lawmakers are close to starting negotiations on a final version of long-term highway legislation that could mandate SUV safety changes.
David Pittle, senior vice president for technical operations at Consumers Union, which publishes Consumer Reports says the new rollover rating system is flawed.
"When a vehicle tips up on two wheels during the rollover testing program, that should drop its score. But that doesn't currently happen. We believe tipping up is a serious performance consideration," Pittle said.