Federal safety officials unveiled a more comprehensive crash rating system for vehicles that for the first time evaluates how women fare in accidents by using female crash dummies and takes into account side pole crashes and crash-prevention technology such as electronic stability control.
The Transportation Department and its National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said it would now issue an "overall vehicle score" that combines the results of a frontal crash test, side crash tests and rollover resistance tests. It compares the results with the average risk of injury and potential for vehicle rollover of other vehicles.
In the rankings released Tuesday for the latest 2011 models, the BMW 5 series sedan and the Hyundai Sonata sedan were the only autos to receive overall vehicle scores of five stars, while the Nissan Versa got only two stars and was particularly vulnerable in side crash tests, according to safety regulators.
The Toyota Camry, one of America's best-selling cars, scored the next lowest among the first group of vehicles being tested, rating only three stars. It was dragged down by lower ratings on front and side crashes compared with ratings under the previous system. Most of the first group of 33 vehicles tested under the new system had a four-star rating.
Consumers can see the full list of newly rated vehicles at http://www.safercar.gov. Safety regulators plan to test 22 other vehicles later this year.
The vehicle safety ratings range from one to five stars, with one star being the lowest and five stars the highest. Under the old system, many vehicles had reached the highest rating and those that didn't still typically landed a high four-star score, according to auto information company Edmunds.com.
But because the new standards are more rigorous, some vehicles will see their scores fall, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said.
"Through new tests, better crash data and higher standards, we are making the safety ratings tougher and more meaningful for consumers," he said.
The emphasis on crash-prevention technologies should also direct shoppers to safer vehicles, NHTSA Administrator David Strickland said.
"We believe electronic stability control, lane departure warning and forward collision warning offer significant safety benefits, and consumers should consider them when buying a new car," Strickland said.
Safety advocates lauded the improvements in the government testing system.
"The new testing is more thorough than in years past when most vehicles received four- or five-star ratings," said Jesse Toprak, vice president of industry trends and insight at TrueCar Inc. "Though many of the tested vehicles will be downgraded by the new system, it provides consumers a more precise measurement of a vehicle's relative safety while potentially propelling sales for the safest models in their category in an otherwise crowded marketplace."
Russ Rader, spokesman for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, a nonprofit funded by the auto insurance industry that analyzes auto safety and driving issues, said consumers should consult the government's ratings and the insurance institute's evaluations of vehicles when they go car shopping.
"A vehicle should be able to get four or five stars in the government's new system as well as good ratings in the institute's tests," he said.
The nonprofit does its own testing and rates vehicles as good, acceptable, marginal or poor. The autos designated as "good" and that feature electronic stability control get the institute's "top pick" ranking.