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SUV's Rollover Test Score: Poor

sport utility vehicle SUV graphic
AP
Sport utility vehicles performed poorly in the latest round of rollover tests released Tuesday, with none winning the government's highest safety rating.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration released rollover ratings for 14 sport utility vehicles from the 2003 model year. Most got three out of five stars from the agency. None got a four- or five-star rollover rating.

That shows little improvement from the 2001 model year, when the Pontiac Aztek was the first and only sport utility vehicle to win a four-star rollover rating from NHTSA. In 2002, the Aztek and the Acura MDX earned four stars.

Two General Motors Corp. SUVs — the Cadillac Escalade EXT and the Chevy Avalanche — and the Mitsubishi Montero Sport received two-star ratings.

SUV rollover ratings became a big issue earlier this year when NHTSA chief Dr. Jeffrey Runge said at an auto conference that he "wouldn't buy my kid a two-star rollover vehicle if it was the last one on Earth."

Runge later said he only meant that buyers should be aware of the driver's experience when choosing a vehicle. But he has repeatedly expressed concern about SUVs' high rollover rates. More than 60 percent of fatalities in SUVs involve rollovers, compared to 22 percent of car deaths.

GM spokesman Jim Schell said NHTSA's rollover ratings are flawed because the agency uses a mathematical formula, based on vehicle height and weight, rather than a moving test to calculate rollover risk. He also said NHTSA fails to take into account stability control systems, which are an option on many SUVs.

"GM doesn't feel that this is a good indication of real-world stability," Schell said.

But NHTSA spokesman Tim Hurd defended the test, saying the agency believes it is a good predictor of vehicle performance. He added that NHTSA plans to abandon the mathematical formula later this year in favor of a new, moving test that will show how the vehicle responds to sharp turns.

Vehicles did much better in NHTSA's crash test ratings, which also were released Tuesday. The Chrysler Pacifica, which was the only 2004 model vehicle tested, won five-star safety ratings in all four front- and side-impact crash tests that NHTSA performs. No other SUV won five stars in every test.

Chrysler said the Pacifica is one of the first to offer standard side curtain air bags as well as inflatable knee blockers to protect occupants' legs. Mike Donoughe, Chrysler's vice president for family vehicle development, said he hoped the ratings would catch the attention of parents. Auto companies often use NHTSA ratings in their advertising.

The Chrysler Pacifica was not given a rollover rating. Chrysler spokeswoman Angela Ford said NHTSA wanted to wait until its new tests were in place before it tested the Pacifica.

NHTSA also released ratings for several sedans. The Lincoln Town Car was the only car to get five stars in all four crash tests as well as a five-star rollover rating.