Rugged, tough, and as safe as a steel cage. That's the image millions of consumers have bought into for a decade as they made sport-utility vehicles the most popular ride on the road. Drivers feel secure riding up high above everyone else, and they feel safer knowing that their SUV will come through a crash better than, say, a Mini Cooper. Even though it costs $60 or more to fill up a big SUV these days, sales are still humming. Good thing, since Detroit earns the bulk of its vehicle profits from trucks and SUVs.
Now those profits, already under pressure from foreign competition, could be threatened by new concerns about safety. On Aug. 9, the National Highway Traffic & Safety Administration issued its rollover safety test results. While some of Detroit's SUVs scored well, hugely popular models, such as the Ford Explorer and Chevrolet Tahoe, scored near the bottom, each with three-star ratings -- out of a possible total of five -- and a 28% chance of rolling over in a one-vehicle accident. General Motors Corp. (GM )'s Saturn Vue SUV failed the test, prompting the auto maker to recall 250,000 of them. Meanwhile, with a few notable exceptions, SUVs built by foreign auto makers generally fared better, since most of them are built not on a high-riding truck frame but on a carlike chassis.
So, once again Detroit is behind the technology curve, right? Actually, no. The Big Three have the gear to make their money-makers less likely to flip, including electronic stability systems that can stop a vehicle from sliding or tipping. Right now, such technology is a pricey option on Big Three trucks. But with NHTSA's ratings about to become a potent marketing tool and the agency planning to start testing more car-based SUVs, GM, Ford, and Chrysler (DCX ) need to make anti-rollover technology standard if they are to fend off the likes of Honda (HMC ), Nissan (NSANY ), Subaru (FUJHY ), and Volvo (F ), which topped NHTSA's list.
Ford Motor Co.'s (F ) problem is particularly acute. It recovered from the rollover fiasco involving its Explorer SUV and Firestone tires. Now the safety of the same SUV is being called into question all over again. The Explorer ranked second-to-last. Its sister vehicle, the Explorer Sport Trac, was the only SUV tested with a worse rating. Says Art Spinella, president of CNW Marketing Research Inc. in Bandon, Ore.: "It's amazing how often Ford winds up in this situation."
The Explorer and the Sport Trac have one structural issue that contributed to their poor scores. The track, or width from the front view, is two inches less than that of the Chevrolet TrailBlazer, which earned four stars to the Explorer's three when both have four-wheel drive. A wider track decreases rollover risk. Rollovers typically happen when a vehicle blows a tire, hits a bump, or runs off the road onto uneven ground and one side tips up. If the vehicle isn't sufficiently wide, it can roll.
Remedies are on the way. Ford will start offering its Roll Stability Control as standard equipment next year on the Explorer and other SUVs. The technology detects when the wheels lift at the start of a rollover and applies brakes to individual wheels to stabilize the SUV. GM should follow suit, making its own stability-control system standard on such vehicles as the popular full-size Tahoe, which did as badly as the Explorer in the NHTSA test. And if Ford and GM want to go all out, they could consider offering side-curtain airbags to protect occupants if the vehicle rolls over -- now a $500 option on most Ford SUVs. Finally, the Big Three are rolling out more midsize, car-based SUVs like the Chrysler Pacifica, which scored well.
Detroit's main quandary is that many buyers want the towing abilities of truck-like SUVs -- the models that generally performed the worst in the NHTSA test. That's why stability-control and high-tech air bag systems should be standard on such SUVs. If auto makers can't get buyers to pony up the extra $800 for such gear, it hits the bottom line. But eating a few hundred bucks per vehicle is a far cry better than failing to boost safety -- and giving their rivals the edge.
By David Welch