Why are Crash Test Ratings Important?

There are several organizations that conduct crash test ratings in order to tell you which are the safest cars. But what do they actually mean? We have a better way to determine the safest car for you and your loved ones.

What is the NHTSA and their NCAP?

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is an agency of the US federal government and part of the Department of Transportation. They are tasked with writing and enforcing standards for safety, theft resistance, and fuel economy. They also develop the dummies used in car crash tests and the tests themselves.

The NHTSA developed the New Car Assessment Program (NCAP). They created this 5-star safety rating program as a way to summarize crash test ratings of new vehicles. The ratings go from 1 to 5 stars: More stars equal safer cars. But they test in laboratories with dummies. And they don’t test every crash scenario:

NHTSA’s 5-Star Rating Program has a limited budget and must concentrate its ratings on front and side impact crashes that are responsible for the highest percentage of deaths and serious injuries.

Are Crash Test Ratings Even Meaningful?

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 Actually Equal Protection?

If all cars get a 4- or 5-star rating, how do you know which ones are best? It 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.

NHTSA categorizes vehicles by class and weight. Passenger cars are further subdivided into different groups:

  1. Passenger cars mini (PC/Mi) (1,500–1,999 lbs)
  2. Passenger cars light (PC/L) (2,000–2,499 lbs)
  3. Passenger cars compact (PC/C) (2,500–2,999 lbs)
  4. Passenger cars medium (PC/Me) (3,000–3,499 lbs)
  5. Passenger cars heavy (PC/H) (3,500 lbs and over )
  6. Sport utility vehicles (SUV)
  7. Pickup trucks (PU) Vans (VAN)

That’s a lot of different categories! But it gets even more complicated! The rates can only be compared within class and with a weight difference of less than 250 lbs! For example, a 2020 Toyota Camry mid-size car could weigh 3,572 lbs and a Honda Accord mid-size car would weigh 3,131. They differ in weight by more than 400 lbs, so their ratings cannot be compared!

Too much “fine print” – wouldn’t you say? We think that you should be able to make comparisons between different cars in different classes.

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.

Get Your Own Auto Grade Now

So now you know the difference between crash test ratings and Auto Grades, you likely want to know how a certain vehicle you have in mind measures up. Use the easy and free search bar below to find out now.

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