NBC News
updated 11/18/2003 5:16:11 PM ET 2003-11-18T22:16:11

Despite a $40,000 difference in price, two vehicles got the same rating in the latest crash tests. And that wasn’t the only surprise. NBC’s Lea Thompson reports on a Dateline Consumer Alert.

LOOKING FOR a new car? What catches your eye, style, design, price? Whatever your taste, there’s also something else you want: safety. Which is one reason the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety crashes all those cars at 40 miles an hour, mimicking what happens when a car hits another car on the road. Funded by insurance companies to help reduce claims payouts, the Institute rates vehicles based on injuries and damage. And as you’ll see, when the Institute finds problems, manufacturers act. The Institute’s president is Brian O’Neill.

Why 40 miles per hour?

O’Neill: “Forty miles-an-hour is a pretty severe crash. It’s the kind of crash in which we know people can die and sustain very serious injuries. But it’s also the kind of crash that people should be able to walk away from if the vehicles are designed well.”

There’s a wide array of newly designed cars among the latest to be rated, large, not-so-large, really expensive and a whole lot cheaper.

There is the brand new, big, classy and very expensive $60,000 Mercedes E-Class. It may look bad, but the dummy stays safe inside. The Mercedes not only gets the Institute’s highest rating, good, it gets the ultimate badge of honor: “best pick.”

But, do you have to spend so much money to get safety? There’s the 2003 Saab 9-3, which costs about half as much as the Mercedes.

O’Neill: We have no crushing or damage here. We’ve got an intact compartment. The restraint system, the airbag and the belts work well. And in this particular crash, this inflatable curtain comes down to help keep the dummy’s head inside the car during the rebound.

The Saab 9-3 also gets a good and a “best pick.” And so does the similarly priced 2003 Infinití G-35. It, too‘ comes standard with a head curtain. Another good, another “best pick” for the G-35.

And there is the Mazda 6, the least expensive of the cars tested, at about $20,000. Back in 1999 its predecessor, the Mazda 626, earned an acceptable rating, the Institute’s second highest. The new Mazda 6 fared a lot better. On safety it earns as high a rating as the Mercedes, a good, a “best pick.”

The 2004 Nissan Quest minivan, which retails for $25,000, has also gone through a major redesign. Four years ago the Quest was rated poor, the lowest possible rating.

O’Neill: “We had problems with the structure, as you can see. Major problems with the control of the dummy during the crash.”

It’s now four years later, and the Institute is testing the Nissan Quest again. Nissan’s new design for the Quest is a vast improvement, a poor in 1999, a good today. But not every vehicle tested in this round brought such good news. There’s the large, luxury, 2003 Lincoln Town Car for around $40,000.

O’Neill: “Watch this rebound. That kind of impact into a B-pillar would cause a pretty serious concussion. I mean it’s a hard hit.”

Because of that serious injury, the Institute rates the Town Car an acceptable. Not satisfied, Lincoln asks the Institute for another chance. Back at the factory it modifies the airbag and restraint systems and then asks to have the car crashed again. The fix works, and Town Cars manufactured in or after June 2003 get a rating of good. You can tell by looking at the sticker on your door. If you own one made before June your Town Car does rate only acceptable.

The Institute also took a look at the 2004 Toyota Sienna minivan, priced at $28,000. The structure looks good, but underneath, the Institute discovers a manufacturing defect that causes a fracture in the fuel tank — and a steady drip of what would be fuel. Luckily, the Institute uses a non-flammable liquid in its tests to prevent fires. But what about in a real crash? O’Neill:

“There is a potential for a fuel leakage, and a fire in some serious, frontal crashes of this vehicle.”

Toyota says there’s no evidence of such fires on the roads, nor has it been able to replicate the leak in its own numerous tests. Still, Toyota is concerned. Its engineers decide to redesign the gas tank and ask the Institute to test again.

O’Neill: “This time we’re not seeing the fuel leak. So I think they fixed the problem.”

Toyota has sent letters to nearly 35,000 people who have already bought the Sienna, offering to replace the gas tanks for free. Toyota calls this a voluntary, special service campaign. What in the world is that?

O’Neill: “It’s a recall.”

And it’s a safety problem that people should pay attention to.

O’Neill: “I think this is one they should take care of.”

With the new fuel tank, the Institute gives the 2004 Toyota Sienna its best rating, a good, and a “best pick.” Without a new tank the Institute says the van poses a real safety risk.

O’Neill overall is pleased manufacturers are listening to the Insurance Institute and responding quickly.

O’Neill: “Fewer crashes, fewer deaths, fewer injuries, is good for society and it’s good for insurers.”

Manufacturers of the vehicles tested in this group say their cars meet or exceed all federal safety standards.

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