Understanding ANCAP: Why not all car safety ratings are equal

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10 Sep 2016 by smartleasing

There was a time when safety was an afterthought in the car business, something only Volvo and Mercedes-Benz even bothered to tempt buyers with. Now, though, even bargain-basement city cars are pushed for their “five-star” safety credentials.

But while it sounds good, what do star ratings mean? Well, these ratings refer to the Australasian New Car Assessment Program (ANCAP), an independent safety advocate and source of information on the level of crash safety offered by passenger and light-commercial vehicles in the Australian and New Zealand markets.

ANCAP has published more than 500 crash-test results since 1993, awarding vehicles a rating between one and five stars based not only on the level of safety they offer in a crash but on their ability to avoid one in the first place.

How cars are tested

ANCAP ratings are determined by a set of internationally recognised crash tests and other assessments. These tests mimic the most common real-world crashes and include:

  • Frontal-offset test (ie. a head-on with another car)
  • Side-impact test (ie. two cars colliding at 90 degrees)
  • Pole test (ie. hitting a fixed object like a tree or pole)
  • Whiplash test (ie. being hit from behind while stationary)
  • Pedestrian test (ie. hitting a pedestrian)

In these tests, dummies are used to measure the forces on occupants and pedestrians, and a numerical score is applied. A vehicle’s key safety features (eg. airbags, anti-lock brakes, stability control) and advanced safety-assist technologies (eg. autonomous emergency braking, blind-spot monitors) also contribute to the overall test score, which is then translated into an ANCAP star rating.

The difference between different ANCAP ratings

A car must achieve a certain numerical score in both individual fields and the overall result to gain a certain star rating. Five-star cars, for example, need to score at least 12.5 out 16 in the front-offset/side-impact tests and have a combined score of at least 32.5 out of 37. Four-star cars, by contrast, only need to attain scores of 8.5 and 24.5 respectively. Vehicles must also tick certain mandatory safety-technology boxes to gain a five-star rating. Like the scores themselves, these are a moving target and typically increase over the years – for example, a 2017 five-star car will need to have top-tether anchors for child restraints, where in 2016 it can gain that score without them.

Look to the colours

To make things easier to understand, ANCAP publishes a colour-coded dummy diagram for each car it tests explaining the level of protection for the occupants’ heads, bodies and legs. Five-star cars will have a prominence of green (good), illustrating a high level of protection and survivability, or yellow (acceptable), which shows only a slight chance of serious injury to these areas. Cars with lower star ratings will show more orange (marginal) and red (poor), indicating a higher risk of serious injury or death resulting from that injury alone.

Not all five-star cars are the same

So you’re looking for a light-sized SUV and have shortlisted Mazda’s CX-3, Renault’s Captur and Suzuki’s Vitara. All have five-star ANCAP ratings, so they’re all as safe as each other, right?

Well, no, partly because of the shifting ANCAP ratings targets – a five-star car from 2016, for example, has had to pass more rigorous standards than its five-star equivalent of 2006. And also be aware that the devil is in the detail.

The Renault, for example, is the only car of the above trio to do without head-protecting curtain airbags in the back seat, gaining its score in 2013 when these features weren’t a five-star requirement. The Mazda and Suzuki have very similar overall scores (36.44 and 35.79 out of 37 respectively) but the former is the only one of the pair that can be optioned with safety-assist technology like autonomous emergency braking.

As with anything, knowledge is power, so don’t skimp on the research. When you’re looking for your next car go to www.howsafeisyourcar.com.au and see how it fares.