CHICKENS COME HOME TO ROOST
This article is from our archives and has not been updated and integrated with our "new" site yet... Even so, it's still awesome - so keep reading!
Published on Sat, Aug 4, 2001
By: The LACar Editorial Staff
Chickens Come Home To Roost
Consumers Union vs The Automotive World
It seems like every once or twice in a blue moon, Consumers Union, the publishers of Consumer Reports, comes out with a vehicle review that completely up-ends the automotive world. Most recently, it's been the rollover resistance of sport-utility vehicles (SUVs) that has come under scrutiny. In 1988, the Suzuki Samurai was singled out for tipping on two wheels in moderately high-speed accident avoidance maneuvers a little too easily in the eyes of the Consumers Union road test crew. In 1996, the Isuzu Trooper and its twin under the skin, the Acura SLX, were deemed "not acceptable" by Consumers Union for the same reason. This year, the re-designed Mitsubishi Montero Limited received this distinction. According to Consumer Reports: " rated the 2001 Mitsubishi Montero Limited 'Not Acceptable' after it tipped up severely on two wheels during CU's emergency avoidance-maneuver tests. The problem was first found during short-course avoidance-maneuver testing of the Montero Limited and six other mid-sized SUVs at Consumer Reports' Auto Test Facility in East Haddam, CT on May 16. None of the other six vehicles tipped up during the tests. The short-course avoidance maneuver is one of CU's standard tests for SUVs. Consumer Reports' avoidance maneuvers are designed to simulate real-world situations in which a driver needs to suddenly steer around an obstacle in the road. CU auto-test engineers run two types of avoidance maneuvers: "long" and "short" course tests. When the Suzuki rollover article came out, Suzuki Motor Corporation of Japan responded with a lawsuit for defamation and disparagement against Consumers Union. Isuzu did the same in response to the 1996 report. A jury found in favor of Consumers Union in the Isuzu suit. The Suzuki suit was dismissed prior to trial, but Suzuki has filed an appeal. Mitsubishi's response to Consumers Union's charges has been similarly vociferous, albeit it has not yet elevated to the point of litigation. In its press release, Mitsubishi Motors stated, in part: "Mitsubishi Motors...released information that validates the safety and stability of the 2001 Montero. The company also produced forensic evidence that Consumers Union drivers forced a rollover using an unrealistic, test-track maneuver. 'We have searched our records and found no reported incidents or complaints of rollover crashes in this vehicle - not one,' Gagnon said. Gagnon criticized Consumers Union for using a maneuver that has been widely criticized as unreliable in assessing a vehicle's stability against rollover. 'We acted immediately and responsibly to assess CU's concerns,' Gagnon added. 'Our investigation shows that in this case their conclusions are false. They forced an outcome that misrepresents the safety of our vehicle, using a maneuver the federal government says is unreliable and not scientific.' 'Using the same procedures, probably any light utility vehicle could be made to roll over under the right conditions and driver input,' NHTSA has concluded. A forensic reconstruction based on physical evidence collected from the vehicles and CU's own course was performed by Carr Engineering, a respected third-party engineering and testing firm. [Editors' Note: Carr Engineering has served as expert witness for automotive manufacturers, including Isuzu in its lawsuit against Consumers Union.] This reconstruction of CU's activities shows that CU violated its own procedures and aggressively drove the vehicle off course and at extreme angles, forcing the vehicle to tip up. 'The evidence gathered by Carr Engineering raises serious questions about the methods Consumers Union used to force this vehicle to tip up,' Gagnon said." Contrast this with the action that Daimler-Benz (now DaimlerChrysler) took back in 1997 when its A-Class car came under rollover scrutiny by Swedish automotive journalists in the famous "elk test" (ironically, similar to the Consumers Union moderately high speed accident avoidance test). Instead of taking a defensive posture, Daimler thanked the Swedish journalists and took swift, corrective action. Consequently, Daimler's reputation was left untarnished and intact. Many of the car buff magazines defended Mitsubishi and the soundness of its product, much as they had with Suzuki, Isuzu and Acura. Historically, automotive journalists are often quick to come to the defense of car companies. This was the case when Ralph Nader first railed against the car companies for inadequate safety. It's also the case every time a car manufacturer wants to loosen pollution requirements or corporate average fuel efficiency standards. Sometimes, the rants of the journalists are justified, as in the "sudden-acceleration" witch-hunt against Audi in the 1980s. In the case of the SUV rollover phenomenon, however, we don't think such ranting is justified. There is no doubt that the high center of gravity of virtually all SUVs poses a risk of rollover greater than the typical sedan. Many consumers maneuver SUVs like they are cars, and that can be unwise. Consumers Union, which has twice petitioned NHTSA to develop a dynamic rollover test since 1988, believes the agency's rating system is inadequate because (in CU's own words) "it isn't based on tests of a moving vehicle and can't account for what could be critical differences in emergency handling caused by suspension design, tires, steering response, or the presence of a stability-control system." In October 2000, Congress directed NHTSA to develop and implement a dynamic rollover test by November 2002. In early 2001, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) implemented a rollover resistance rating - a five-star system based on static measurements of a vehicle's dimensions. It is intended to provide an estimate of rollover risk in a single-vehicle accident. We believe that Mitsubishi should have followed the example set by its controlling parent company (DaimlerChrysler now owns a 37.3 percent share of Mitsubishi Motors Corporation), when that company recalled and corrected its A-Class car. We also think that automotive journalists should take a page from the folks at Consumers Union, and start acting more like consumer watchdogs and less like car company lap dogs.