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Crash tests: Apples or peanuts?

2006-02-15 07:32

The Chev Spark test as pictured on the Euro NCAP website

John Oxley

The reason I ask this is that there is a lot of confusion in the marketplace - some of it, I suspect, deliberate - about which star safety ratings are worthy of acclaim, and which are not, quite frankly, worth shouting about.

NCAP stands for New Car Assessment Programme, and was started in the US as an attempt to give some sort of indication about which cars are safest.

A government project under the auspices of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, part of the US Department of Transport, the US NCAP conducts all sorts of tests, including rollover ratings.

However, its NCAP star ratings leave a lot to be desired when compared to other NCAP programmes around the world.


The US NCAP tests measure only full frontal and side impacts. Rollover ratings are measured separately and have their own star rating system.

A 5-star US NCAP rating means passengers have a 10% or less chance of serious injury in a frontal impact at 35 mph (56 km/h) or 5% or less chance in a side impact at 38.5 mph (61.6 km/h).

Four-star frontal rating states 11% to 20% chance of serious injury and 4-star side impact 6% to 10% chance of serious injury

Another US body, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) conducts a frontal offset crash test, a side-impact crash test, a low-speed rear bumper test, and rates head restraints.

The Euro NCAP tests, backed by five goverments, the EU, as well as a number of top motoring organisations, are much more severe.

One of the key components is a test which measures the severity of an impact to the front corner of a vehicle - the so-called offset deformation test. The car is crashed into a solid block on one corner only so the impact is not spread right across the front of the car.


The car strikes the barrier at 40 mph (64 km/h).

Side impact (30 mph, 50 km/h) and a side impact crash into a pole (18 mph, 29 km/h) are also measured, as well as protection for passengers, children, and pedestrian impact (25 mph, 40 km/h).

The pole test is quite uncompromising as the pole is fixed and the car is propelled so it hits the pole just ahead of the car's centre pillar.

Frankly, it's the toughest test around, and to my mind the only one worth boasting about.

By the way, there's also an Australian NCAP, and a Japanese version, both of which follow closely on Euro NCAP protocols, as well as a Korean government test which is also close to Euro NCAP standards.

So where does this all leave us?

Well, without picking on any particular car, or manufacturer, I was looking at the Euro NCAP site the other day as I was about to start writing a road test, and saw the latest new-shape Chevrolet Matiz (for SA read Spark) was listed.

Which NCAP?

Now, I clearly remember Chev marketing boss Arthur Doyle commenting at the launch of the car that it had a "4-Star NCAP rating". Only when I questioned him did he volunteer that it was a US NCAP - though I've not been able to ascertain this on the US NCAP website.

Now to Euro NCAP.

The Chev. Matiz pages show the car has a 3-star rating for adult occupant protection, with the last star struck through.

Under "Comments" Euro NCAP states: "The final adult occupant protection star is struck through because there was an unacceptably high risk of life threatening injury to the chest in side impact."

So US NCAP says there's 6 - 10% chance of serious injury, and Euro NCAP says it's "an unacceptably high risk". Big difference.

All that said, this story is NOT about the Chev Spark - I've merely used that car as an example.

It's about comparing apples with apples.

Make sure when you hear or read the word "NCAP" that you know which test they're referring to.

And which test is an apple, and which a peanut...


NHTSA Crash test ratings
EuroNCAP test procedures


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