Ford Motor Co. engineers insisted that the redesigned 2002 Explorer would do better than its predecessors in crash tests, and Tuesday their faith was rewarded as the world's most popular sport-utility vehicle won the insurance industry's top rating for high-speed crash protection.
The latest test underscores what the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety said is an "encouraging" improvement in crash safety performance within the popular mid-size SUV segment.
The 2002 Explorer became one of five mid-size SUVs -- and the only one not from a luxury brand -- to be rated "good" and a "best buy" for so-called high-speed offset-crash performance by the institute. Explorers in the 1995-2001 model years were rated "acceptable."
DaimlerChrysler's 2002 Jeep Liberty and Isuzu Motors Ltd.'s 2002 Rodeo, the two other mid-size SUVs in the institute's latest round of testing, received "marginal" ratings, though not for hard-to-correct structural flaws.
"Structurally, they were very good," said Brian O'Neill, president of the insurance industry-supported research institute. "Their problems are with seat-belt and air-bag performance."
The institute's complete ratings for offset crashes can be found on-line at www.highwaysafety.org.
The testing involves ramming a vehicle into an offset barrier at 40 mph. The vehicle and the sensor-equipped crash dummy inside are evaluated to determine how well the vehicle's structure protected the dummy and how much damage was done if the dummy was tossed about by the force of the impact.
This year the institute has tested 11 mid-size SUVs that were either new or, as in the case of the Explorer, completely redesigned. None failed the crash test with a "poor" rating.
"The message seems to be getting through," O'Neill said. "There's no question that (automakers) are working harder" to make vehicles safer in crashes that once routinely resulted in severe injuries and loss of life.
The Jeep Liberty is a good example, he said, of a vehicle that could test better if its air bags and seat belts were improved. Though its overall evaluation was "marginal," it received ratings of "good" or "acceptable" in all but one category. That was a critical category, though: head and neck protection.
Jeep, in fact, ordered a recall of new Liberty models last week to add a rubber casing to a pair of wires in the air bag-triggering system to protect them from being frayed or severed in a crash.
The recall was a direct result of the insurance institute's findings that a delay in air-bag deployment contributed to severe head impact, said Chrysler Group spokeswoman Angela Spencer Ford.
The Explorer's performance was much-needed good news for Ford Motor, which has been struggling with a series of recalls this year, several involving the Explorer.
Strong competition in the mid-size SUV category from General Motors Corp., Toyota Motor Corp. and Honda Motor Co. has reduced the Explorer's market share, although it remains the best-selling SUV by a margin of more than 2 to 1 over the Chevrolet Tahoe, its nearest competitor.
Commenting on the Explorer results, Ford spokeswoman Sara Tatchio echoed the auto industry party line on crash testing, cautioning that "it is dangerous to focus too much on a single test. We design for good protection for our customers in real-world situations.' Still, she acknowledged, "We're happy about these results."
Brainerd Dispatch ©2013. All Rights Reserved.