The crashworthiness of cars sold in Europe has steadily improved since the start of EuroNCAP, a program of crash tests that shares a name and a rating system of one to five stars with the U.S. government's New Car Assessment Program. However, the tests are different. A key EuroNCAP test is a frontal offset impact which, like the Institute's program of offset tests, is prompting improvements in vehicle crashworthiness to ensure good test performances and high ratings.
"In 1997 when EuroNCAP first tested family cars, only one model achieved a four-star performance," says Max Mosley, who is both chairman of EuroNCAP and president of the Federation Internationale de l'Automobile, a EuroNCAP partner. "It's clear from our latest tests that a four-star rating is becoming the EuroNCAP norm."
Number of four-star vehicles doubles
Half of the 1999-2001 cars tested by EuroNCAP earned the highest ratings of four or five stars for frontal and side crash test performance, compared with about a quarter of 1996-98 vehicles that were tested. Fewer than 15 percent of the later models earned two stars, compared with about 36 percent of the earlier models with two or one star ratings.
Approximately one-third of the 1999-2001 models garnered three stars, compared with fewer than one-quarter of the 1996-98 vehicles. Another 17 percent of the earlier models earned three-star EuroNCAP ratings with lines through the last stars, indicating "an unacceptably high risk of severe life-threatening injury in at least one body area."
EuroNCAP's regimen of tests
The frontal test is a 40 mph offset crash into a deformable barrier, the same type of test the Institute uses to assign crashworthiness ratings. In EuroNCAP's side impact test, a movable barrier is towed into the driver's side of a car at 30 mph. A rating from one to four or five stars is awarded to vehicles for combined performance in these tests.
For manufacturers requesting it, there's a side impact head protection test in which a car is propelled sideways at 18 mph into a rigid pole. The narrow pole causes major penetration into the side of the car. Vehicles need side airbags with head protection to pass the pole test. If they do, they can earn a fifth star. Otherwise, four stars is the top rating.
EuroNCAP also includes pedestrian tests designed to replicate crashes into adults and children at 25 mph. Various impact sites on the front of the car are rated fair, weak, or poor, and a separate pedestrian star rating is assigned. The 2001 Honda Civic recently earned the highest mark ever attained in the pedestrian test, falling just short of a four-star rating.
Tests lead to structural improvements
The short history of EuroNCAP mirrors crash test results in the United States. Fifty-two percent of the 1999-2001 cars and minivans in the Institute's frontal offset crash tests earned good ratings compared with 22 percent of 1995-98 models (see Status Report special issue: crashworthiness improvements, March 20, 2001). U.S. NCAP also has documented major improvements since it was implemented in 1978.
"The improvements in crashworthiness that we're seeing around the world demonstrate the importance of these crash test programs," says Adrian Lund, the Institute's chief operating officer. "What's happening is that vehicle manufacturers are being pressured to improve the structural designs of their cars."
EuroNCAP is an international association that includes the European Commission; the governments of France, Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden, and the United Kingdom; and international consumer groups and automobile clubs.
A 1996 Fiat Punto rated two EuroNCAP stars for frontal and side crashworthiness compared with four stars for the 1999 model. The passenger compartment of the later model (above right) remained largely intact in the frontal offset test, while in the 1996 model (above left) there was significant collapse of the occupant compartment. There also was excessive movement of the steering wheel in the 1996 Punto, compared with only slight distortion and no evidence of chest contact in the 1999 model. The side impacts revealed similarly contrasting performances — a high risk of chest injury in the 1996 Punto but only a small risk in the 1999 model.
The 2001 Renault Laguna earned the highest EuroNCAP rating of five stars for its frontal and side impact test performances. The occupant compartment held up well in the frontal test (above right). The safety belt with pyrotechnic crash tensioner prevented the driver's knees from hitting the facia and protected the thighs. In the side impact test, this car's thorax side airbag and head curtain greatly limited serious injury risk. In contrast is the 1997 Laguna, which earned only three stars, in large part because of a high risk of life-threatening injury to the chest in the side impact. Without side airbags, this model was judged to have poor chest protection. In the frontal test (above left), the A pillar and steering wheel of the 1997 Laguna were pushed backwards, and there was moderate footwell intrusion. There also was a major risk of knee, thigh, and pelvis injury.
Note about driver orientation: Some EuroNCAP tests are conducted with left-hand-drive vehicles, some with right-hand-drive vehicles.