Explorer improves in latest insurance industry crash tests; one of two top-rated SUVs

Tuesday, December 11th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ The redesigned 2002 Ford Explorer, the world's most popular sport utility vehicle, holds up better than previous models in a new insurance industry crash test.

The Explorer and the Mercury Mountaineer, which share the same design, earned a ``best pick'' designation from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. The test results were released Tuesday.

The Insurance Institute tests vehicles by running the driver's side front end into a deformable barrier at 40 mph.

It rates vehicles as good, acceptable, marginal or poor based on injury measurements on crash dummies, analysis of how the restraint system controlled dummy movement and how well the occupant compartment held up.

The best performers earn a ``best pick'' designation. The Explorer and the Acura MDX are the only SUVs among the 11 tested this year to earn the mark.

The institute agreed to delay testing of the 2002 Explorer earlier this year while Ford engineers made structural changes to improve its performance.

``By the results of our recent test, the changes were successful,'' said institute president Brian O'Neill. ``The Explorer's structure held together very well.''

The last institute test of an Explorer was the 1996 model. It was rated only acceptable because the driver door opened during impact.

The new results are a boost for the Explorer. Its reputation took a hit after thousands of rollover accidents involving failed Firestone tires.

Bridgestone/Firestone Inc. said the Explorer's design was partly to blame, but Ford officials insisted the accidents were solely the result of a tire problem.

The 2002 Explorer was completely redesigned but still had to be recalled twice this year _ once because the rear lift gate windows could break when shut and then over concerns that tires may have been cut accidentally by a narrow assembly line.

SUVs as a class are performing better in the tests this year. None got a poor evaluation. However, the 2002 Jeep Liberty got a marginal rating after the air bag inflated late because a sensor wire shorted out early in the crash. DaimlerChrysler is recalling 120,000 Liberties to fix the problem.

The 2002 Isuzu Rodeo and its twin, the Honda Passport, also got a marginal rating. The manufacturer changed the air bag design to reduce head injuries in the 2000 model, but the changes improved performance only slightly.

Results for the eight other SUVs tested were released Sept. 11. They did not get much notice because of the terrorist attacks, so the institute rereleased them Tuesday.

Four earned good ratings _ the MDX, 2001 Toyota Highlander, 2001 Suzuki Grand Vitara XL-7 and 2001 Mitsubishi Montero Sport.

The 2002 Buick Rendezvous and 2002 Isuzu Axiom were rated acceptable. The 2001 Pontiac Aztek and the 2002 Chevrolet TrailBlazer were rated marginal.