WASHINGTON -- No more grade inflation for new cars and trucks.
The Transportation Department outlined changes Tuesday to the government's 5-Star Safety Rating System that will make it more difficult for new cars and trucks to earn top scores.
Only two of the first 34 vehicles tested under the new program -- the 2011 BMW 5 Series and a version of the 2011 Hyundai Sonata -- received the top grade of five stars. The Toyota Camry, the best-selling passenger car in the United States, received three stars.
The ratings range from one to five stars, with five stars being the highest and one star being the lowest.
The so-called "Stars on Cars" system, which evaluates vehicles on front-end and side-impact crashes and rollovers, was started in 1979 and has helped generate interest in safety equipment such as side-impact air bags and anti-rollover technology. But the program is being revamped for the 2011 model year because so many vehicles were receiving top marks under the old system, making it difficult to distinguish the best performers.
Typically, more than 90 percent of the vehicles tested under the old system earned four or five stars. In 1979, less than 30 percent received four or five stars.
"More stars equal safer cars," said Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. "Through new tests, better crash data and higher standards, we are making the safety ratings tougher and more meaningful for consumers."
LaHood said the new rating system will encourage automakers to install crash avoidance technologies and will help car shoppers "navigate a crowded marketplace with trustworthy and objective safety analysis."
The new system adds an overall score, uses different sized test dummies and takes into account crash-prevention technologies and a new test that simulates a car striking a pole or a tree. The overall score combines the results of front, side and rollover tests and compares those results with average risk of injury and the potential for vehicle rollover of other vehicles.
Consumers will not be able to compare a score of a new 2011 model year vehicle with that of a 2010 model year vehicle because of the new test criteria. The window sticker attached to vehicles in dealership lots will need to be redesigned and will not include the overall score until the 2012 model year. Vehicles that have not been tested will be listed initially as "not rated."
In the latest testing, most of the 34 vehicles reviewed received an overall score of four out of five stars. The 2011 Nissan Versa got two stars while hybrid and conventional versions of the Toyota Camry received three stars. Another 21 vehicles will be tested later this year.
The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, which represents General Motors, Toyota, Ford and other auto companies, said the changes will mean the ratings found on new car labels will probably go down, even in cases where there have been no significant changes to the vehicle.
Mike Stanton, president of the Association of International Automobile Manufacturers, which represents Toyota, Honda, Nissan and others, said car makers had been concerned about confusion over the new grading system. But he expected consumers to embrace the changes.
"Everybody knows that vehicles are very, very safe today so it's a degree of how safe and what's the new technologies and hopefully this will take hold as people pay attention," Stanton said.