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Safety first? Car brands question ANCAP's crash-testing system - and what it means for your next car

ANCAP gave the ‘new’ Mitsubishi Express van a zero-star safety rating this week.

This week’s announcement of a zero-star ANCAP safety rating for the Mitsubishi Express van has exposed a division within the automotive industry that highlights the potential for confusion when buying a new vehicle.

ANCAP is an independent authority that crash-tests cars and provides a star rating from zero to five. Typically, carmakers enjoy advertising a five-star ANCAP safety rating on new models that achieve the standard. However, ANCAP’s continual push to introduce new crash-test procedures to ensure safer models has left many carmakers unsure if they can achieve the maximum rating. 

The catch is approximately 60 per cent of the crash tests ANCAP carries out are partially funded and supported by the carmakers – as five examples of the model are required for each test, so the bill can run beyond $750,000 on average. Of ANCAP’s 291 tests conducted in 2019-20, 262 were funded by Euro NCAP, 19 were funded by manufacturers and 10 were self-funded.

Which is why the statement issued by the Federal Chamber of Automotive Industries (FCAI) this week was so eye-opening, because the FCAI is made up of the carmakers. So, in effect, they were sending a message to ANCAP that they didn’t appreciate the way the Mitsubishi scenario was handled.

The FCAI statement questioned ANCAP’s motives for assessing the Express, as it’s based on the existing Renault Trafic, which was first released back in 2015 and was crash-tested by ANCAP’s European sister-organisation, Euro NCAP.

“Alignment with global standards is the best way of ensuring Australians can have the highest vehicle design standards at the lowest possible prices,” said FCAI chief executive Tony Weber.

“Why is ANCAP spending potentially up to $500,000, which includes taxpayer dollars, to undertake a test on a six-year-old vehicle that has already been assessed by its sister organisation, Euro NCAP, in 2015?

“It makes no sense, can send a confused message to Australian car buyers and is not the best use of taxpayer funds.”

ANCAP defended its decision to CarsGuide, explaining that the Mitsubishi Express is being marketed in Australia as a new model and the Euro NCAP test was based on the people-mover variant of the Renault Trafic, not the commercial van, so the rating couldn’t be transferred across.

“The zero-star rating achieved by the Mitsubishi Express is very clear, and we know tradespeople, small businesses and fleet buyers will take it into consideration when comparing ratings achieved by other recently released and rated vehicles,” said ANCAP CEO Carla Hoorweg.

“ANCAP’s role is to provide consumers with independent test results – highlighting for consumers the comparable safety performance of vehicles to allow them to make informed purchasing decisions. Without ANCAP, the safety performance of vehicles that are not supplied for testing by the vehicle brand would go unknown.”

But the issue goes beyond the Mitsubishi experience. The FCAI statement speaks to a division within the industry with several brands expressing reservations about having cars tested for fear they won’t achieve five stars, resulting in criticism from ANCAP and damaged reputation in the eyes of consumers. Another major factor is fleet buyers typically require a five-star safety rating, so anything less could have a big impact on a vehicles’ sales potential.

Volkswagen – a brand that consistently scores five-stars from ANCAP – weighed in on the issue, expressing frustration at the ANCAP process, which the German brand says relies heavily on Euro NCAP, with the local operation providing only a small percentage of the information that goes into applying the rating.

The company’s local spokesman went so far as to question ANCAP’s safety rating as “to some extent a bureaucratic rubber stamp” as the physical crash testing of Volkswagen models has primarily been done by Euro NCAP.

“It is Euro NCAP, the global benchmark agency, that crash-tests our brands’ vehicles and assesses all aspects of active and passive safety measures with scientific exactitude,” explained Volkswagen Australia general manager corporate communications Paul Pottinger.

“ANCAP’s inspectors conduct a perfunctory examination and drive, subsequently bestowing its own star rating. This does not differ from the grading of Euro NCAP, whose data ANCAP republishes on its website.”

All of which leaves Australian buyers wondering who and what to believe, and what it means for ensuring the next new car you buy is as safe as it can be.

The challenge for ANCAP is to get consumers to understand its role and the reasons why it continues to introduce new testing requirements, typically every two years. That means a car crash-tested in 2021 is done to a higher standard than one tested in 2018, both could have the same score but different results in an accident. For example, a car that achieves only a four-star rating this year, could have been good enough to score five stars under the previous testing protocols.

However, without ANCAP consistently raising the bar, it could potentially slow the introduction of key safety features. As we recently wrote, ANCAP has been instrumental in introducing life-saving technology including anti-lock brakes, curtain airbags and soon autonomous emergency braking as legal requirements in Australia.

For its part, ANCAP has introduced a ‘tested on date’ label that carmakers are required to use when advertising the crash testing rating. But perhaps more importantly, it introduced a six-year validity period for all crash test scores in 2018, allowing it to retest cars more than six years old if they’re still on sale. That could have significant impact on several models in the future, notably commercial vehicles like vans and utes which typically have product lifecycles of 10 years or more.

But for all the obvious division between ANCAP and FCAI this week, both sides agree safer cars for customers is the ultimate goal. As Mr Weber said: “Safe vehicles on our roads must be a priority for everyone in our industry, including ANCAP. Surely, there is no debating that point.”