WASHINGTON — The BMW 5 Series and Hyundai Sonata topped all vehicles in new government crash tests for safety. But nearly every other vehicle tested got overall ratings of four stars, reported The Detroit News.

The only models to receive two or three stars were from Toyota Motor Corp. and Nissan Motor Co.

The Camry — the best-selling vehicle in the United States since 2002 — and the Camry hybrid got three stars, while the Versa received two stars.

Under new tougher crash tests, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said 29 out of 34 2011 models tested received four out of five stars in overall ratings.

The Overall Vehicle Score combines the results of a frontal crash test, side crash tests and rollover resistance tests and compares those results to the average risk of injury and potential for vehicle rollover of other vehicles in setting a rating of one to five starsPreviously, vehicles got three crash test ratings for frontal, side and rollover ratings.

The government revised its 31-year-old New Car Assessment Program in 2008 — after too many vehicles were getting the highest scores — but gave automakers until the 2011 model year to face the new tests that grade vehicles on 1 to 5 star basis.

Among the 2011 models getting overall four star ratings: the Ford Fiesta, Cadillac Escalade, Chevrolet Malibu, Ford Taurus, Infiniti M37, GMC Yukon, Jeep Grand Cherokee, Subaru Outback, Toyota Sienna, Honda Pilot, Kia Sorento and Audi A4.

Just one model — the BMW 5 Series — got five stars on the first try. Initially, the first Sonata tested received four stars. Hyundai asked for a retest after it made modifications and ultimately received the highest grade. That version is currently in production.

Still in a sign of how tough the tests are — neither the BMW nor Sonata got “five stars” across the board in all three categories; both got four stars for frontal ratings.

Under the old tests, the 2010 Versa got four stars across all three tests; the 2011 model got an overall two-star rating.

Nissan spokesman Scott Vazin emphasized “because testing guidelines are stricter, 2011 model ratings are not comparable to 1990-2010 vehicles.”

He said the compact Versa “has performed well in real world crashes and provides our customers with good real-world safety protection. Nonetheless, we will study NHTSA's test results and take the appropriate action to ensure we deliver a high-level of real-world safety.

The 2010 Camry received five stars for frontal and side tests; the 2011 Camry gets three stars on both under the tougher tests.

“Even though star ratings may go down on certain vehicles the new star ratings do not mean that the vehicles are less safe,” Toyota spokesman Brian Lyons said. He said the “the government ‘raised the bar’ by changing the test procedures.”

If the next batch of results are in line with the first, they are likely to bring a sigh of relief from automakers — who were worried that many models would get two or three stars and crimp sales.

But there are many vehicles to test. Only one Chrysler model was tested — its new Jeep Grand Cherokee — and just two Toyota models were tested. NHTSA tested just one BMW and one Nissan.

But the new ratings may still make it difficult for customers to differentiate between vehicles — since nearly everyone received four stars. And as many as 40 percent of 2011 models will be listed as “not rated” in the first year, because NHTSA tests a limited number of models.

The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers — a trade association representing Detroit’s Big Three automakers, Toyota Motor Corp. and eight others — unveiled a new website — www.newstarsoncars.com — to explain to consumers the changes.

“We’re at a point in time when we’re seeing record-setting safety levels when it comes to auto travel,” said Alliance president and CEO Dave McCurdy. “The new ‘Stars on Cars’ rating system will now reflect our advancements even better. But, since the tests are getting more challenging, many ratings may go down at first — even when a model hasn’t changed.”

NHTSA will unveil the results of another 20 tests of 2011 models later.

The upgraded ratings system evaluates side pole crash testing and crash prevention-technologies. And, for the first time, it will use female crash test dummies to simulate crash scenarios involving women, not just men.

“More stars equal safer cars,” said Transportation Secretary LaHood. “We’re raising the bar on safety.”

For model year 2011, NHTSA will rate 24 passenger cars, 20 sport utility vehicles, two vans and nine pickups under the new ratings system.

“We want consumers to embrace these new safety technologies as a way to make vehicles safer,” said NHTSA Administrator David Strickland.

NHTSA recommends consumers consider vehicles with crash avoidance technologies like forward collision warning, lane departure warning, and electronic stability control (ESC). All of the 2011 model year vehicles currently rated have ESC as standard, except for the Nissan Versa, in which it is optional.

The anti-rollover technology ESC must be standard on all vehicles by the 2012 model year, under a 2007 federal regulation.

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