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Every year the Center for Auto Safety publishes a report called The Car Book that evaluates crash test results for new vehicles. These crash tests are different from the government's simplified 5-star rating system, and take into account subtle differences in how vehicles actually perform in both front and side impacts.

For example, 96% of 2008 vehicles received a 4- or 5-star safety rating in the government front crash tests, and 100% of SUVs received a 5-star rating in the side tests. That's good news, but it gives the impression that most of these vehicles performed more or less the same.

The Car Book ratings allow the government’s crash test results to be compared on a relative basis, enabling consumers to identify the safest vehicles. In addition, Car Book author Jack Gillis has combined the results of the government’s front and side tests into a new Overall Crash Test Rating that enables consumers to easily compare a vehicle’s total crash test performance.

Clarence Ditlow, Executive Director of the Center for Auto safety, said the government 5-star rating program, though well-intentioned, buried important differences in how the vehicles compare in the crash tests and neutered one of the program’s most valuable features, which is to stimulate competition.

While the preponderance of four and five star rated vehicles in the marketplace indicates an improvement in the safety of today’s new vehicles, it has become nearly impossible to distinguish the best performers from those lower on the list. Under the government’s 5-star system, a vehicle receiving a four or five star rating may actually be one of the worst performers when compared to other vehicles.

For instance, the 2008 Ford Edge received a four and five star rating in the front test and two five stars in the side test. Using The Car Book Front Crash Test Rating System, the Edge receives a Worst rating when compared to all of the 2008 vehicles and a Below Average rating for the Side Crash Test when compared to all others in the SUVs category. In the Overall Crash Test Rating, which combines the front and side rating, the Edge was actually one of the lowest rated vehicles when compared to all of the 2008 SUV choices.

"Unfortunately, NHTSA's star ratings do not allow consumers to see more detailed but important differences in the test scores," said Gillis. The new Car Book Crash Test Rating System DOES capture these differences.

For example, the 2008 Buick Lucerne and Mercury Grand Marquis both received five stars for the driver in the front crash test, yet the government tests show the Lucerne driver with a 5% chance of receiving a life threatening injury compared to a 10% chance in the Grand Marquis. Under Gillis's new system the Lucerne receives a "Best" rating while the Grand Marquis more accurately rates "Above Average" for the front tests.

Another example: The 2008 Pontiac Torrent and Volvo XC90 both get five stars in the government ratings, but the tests actually show that the front and rear passengers of the Torrent are subject to a 6% and 5% chance of life threatening injuries compared to a 1% and 2% chance in the XC90. In The Car Book rating system, the Pontiac Torrent receives a Worst rating among SUVs while the Volvo XC90 gets a Best rating.

By combining the front and side crash test results for an overall rating, consumers can get a more realistic picture of how various vehicles actually compare within a particular class. The Car Book’s Overall Crash Test Rating weighs the front test by 60% and the side test by 40% to approximate typical accident types. Here are the best and the worst 2008 cars, SUVs by size class.

The Car Book 2008 Crash Test Safety Ratings of Best and Worst Vehicles

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National Highway Traffic Safety Institute (NHTSA) (NHTSA vehicle safety information resource)

Here's an interesting compilation of crash tests set to music:

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