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What is Star Inflation in Crash Test Ratings?

crash test ratings when buying a carImagine you have found your perfect car. You love the trim on this cute little coupe, and it’s fuel efficient, too. You’ve even found a dealership in town willing to sell it to you at a price that you can afford. As you are heading out for a test drive, you ask the salesman about the NCAP (New Car Assessment Program) 5-star safety rating. His response? “Eh, the star ratings don’t mean much.”

That’s a little disturbing: a car salesman telling a potential customer that she shouldn’t worry about the star safety rating on a car that she likes. But why would he say it if it isn’t true? Is he right?

Maybe the salesman knows about “star inflation.”

96% of cars tested since 2011 have received either a 4- or 5-star overall rating from our federal government.

Do Stars Equal Protection?

That certainly doesn’t leave much room for differentiation. Does this mean that all cars offer a similar level of protection? Not exactly. The fine print on the NCAP ratings is that ratings can only be compared between cars of a similar weight and class. This means that a 4-star rated subcompact car (e.g., a Smart ForTwo) should not be compared to a 4-star rated full-size SUV (e.g., a Chevrolet Tahoe). Not all 4-stars are created equal.

Real Data for Real Comparisons

The Auto Professor has analyzed years’ worth of real crash data to help consumers make meaningful comparisons. When NHTSA-tested cars from model years 2011-2017 are examined using Auto Grades, the pattern reveals quite a different picture.

The 52% of cars that NCAP rated as 5-stars receive Auto Grades ranging from A to D, as do the 44% of cars that NCAP rated as 4-stars. NCAP’s overall star rating is heavily weighted on the frontal crash test, which simulates a head-on collision between two cars of a similar weight and class. It is easy to see that while a Smart ForTwo may do a good job of protecting its driver in a collision with another ForTwo, it is unlikely to protect its driver in a head-on collision with a Chevrolet Tahoe. The NCAP rating is simply not sufficient to tell you how a car will perform on the road in combination with all the other cars big and small. Learn more.

Auto Grades Go Beyond Crash Test Ratings

Auto Grades differentiate where the star-based crash test ratings do not. A 2016 Smart ForTwo receives a D, where a 2016 Chevrolet Tahoe receives an A. Since we don’t live in a world where all cars are the same, why would we rely on a rating system based on that assumption? Auto Grades provide a much more meaningful way to evaluate the cars we rely on to protect ourselves and our families.

Working together to create a world where everyone walks away from a crash.