What is Euro NCAP? Safety, star ratings and new ‘dual rating’ crash test scores

Hyundai Tucson crash
16 Feb, 2016 11:17am Chris Rosamond

Euro NCAP is the independent body behind new car crash safety scores. Here’s everything you need to know

Independent crash safety experts at the European New Car Assessment Programme (or Euro NCAP) will soon introduce a new ‘dual rating’ crash safety score system. The new Euro NCAP regime will allow cars with optional safety equipment packages to be awarded different star ratings depending on whether that extra safety equipment is fitted or not.

The changes mean we may have to start thinking a little differently about Euro NCAP star ratings. Four-star cars can offer the same protection in the simulated collision tests as a five-star car. Full five-star ratings will, however, be reserved for cars fitted with the latest safety technology - such as AEB Automatic Emergency Braking - and we'll start to see versions of the same car with different star ratings from Euro NCAP. To get a second optional star rating on a car, manufacturers just have to confirm that they expect the extra safety technology to be fitted on at least 25 per cent of models sold. 

The change marks a step away from NCAP’s current philosophy of grading only cars fitted with safety equipment available from the entry model up. The first of the new dual rating results will be revealed in April, alongside an information campaign designed to keep consumers up to speed with the changes.

The safest cars on sale now

It is thought the move is designed to address pressure from manufacturers who believe it’s unfair to rate only lowest spec cars for safety when more expensive versions with extra safety features could be significantly safer in an accident. The prospect of an 'extra' star should also provide an incentive for carmakers to invest in new safety technologies, even if they're initially too expensive for mainstream models.

The dual rating system is also intended to provide a more effective mechanism for consumers to understand the benefits and value of additional safety options that are available to them on car options lists. 

“From 2016, vehicle manufacturers can request a second (optional) rating for a model with additional active safety systems not fitted as standard on all variants in all markets, provided these systems are offered as a safety pack on all variants in all European countries where the car is offered,” Euro NCAP says. “The objective of the dual rating is to demonstrate the safety benefit of the additional technology to consumers, expressed in stars.” 

More details about how the new dual rating scheme will work are expected soon.

Audi TT crashed door

What is the Euro NCAP crash test programme?

The reassurance of a top five-star crash safety test result is a hugely important factor for anyone choosing a new or used car these days. Before 1997 though, the idea that UK car buyers could compare actual crash performance of cars and safety systems from rival manufacturers was just a pipe-dream.

The consumer-focused US administration was way ahead, setting up its own New Car Assessment Program to independently crash test cars and provide comparative results to buyers as long ago as 1979. 

Comparison sites: can motorists trust them?

Amazingly, it took the Europeans almost 20 years to catch up, and the Euro New Car Assessment Programme (Euro NCAP) was founded in 1996, with the first comparative crash tests – featuring seven of the most popular superminis – published in 1997.

At the time, carmakers were up in arms, claiming the Euro NCAP tests were unfair and much too harsh. Since then, Euro NCAP has crash tested more than 500 individual cars, and as carmakers compete for crucial star ratings, the safety tech advances have come thick and fast.

Euro NCAP crash test

It wouldn’t be fair to give Euro NCAP all the credit for the process of improving car safety, but there’s general agreement its well-publicised crash test programme was a game changer, bringing safety to the forefront of consumers’ minds. Euro NCAP has certainly had a significant role in improving car safety standards.

From the outset, Euro NCAP was determined not simply to measure crash safety performance, but to play a part in driving the science forward and help to save lives.

For that reason the organisation has always maintained that cars only meeting current crash safety legislation would receive a zero star rating. To score more highly, cars need to go above and beyond those basic statutory requirements.

What do the Euro NCAP crash tests cover?

That first round of Euro NCAP supermini crash tests had a maximum possible rating of four stars. At the time, manufacturers bleated the tests were so hard that no car could possibly score four stars – yet Volvo managed it a few months later with the new S40.

What are Cat D cars?

Over time more cars began to achieve the four star goal, and by 2001 Euro NCAP was able to set the bar higher by introducing a five star maximum rating. The Renault Laguna took the honours with the first five-star rating that same year.

While five stars is still the maximum Euro NCAP award, the tests haven’t stood still since then.

A new rating system introduced in 2009 began to assess safety not just from the point of view of adult occupants, child occupants and pedestrians. On top of those existing categories, a new ‘safety assist’ rating was added to assess the fitment of electronic safety systems like ESC. 

Autonomous Emergency Braking tests were added in 2014, and in 2015 a full-width front impact test was introduced (as well as the existing off-set front impact test) to help assess deceleration forces and the efficiency of restraint systems.

The current Euro NCAP tests in detail

Euro NCAP provides crash safety scores as a percentage rating so you can compare the results between different makes and models that have taken the same tests. Ratings are awarded in each of the following four categories: 

1. Adult Occupant Protection

The Adult Occupant Protection rating is based on crash scenarios that simulate frontal impact (off-set and ‘head-on’), crashing side-on into a moving object, and hitting a fixed object like a lamp post or telegraph pole. Whiplash protection and the effectiveness of Autonomous Braking Systems are also factored-in.

2.  Child Occupant Protection

This score is based on three factors, namely the protection provided by child restraint systems in front and side impacts, the ability to accommodate restraints of different sizes and design, and provisions within the vehicle that facilitate safe use of child seats. (E.g ISOFIX child seat anchorages, airbag deactivation systems and clear labeling of such features) 

Baby crash test dummy

3. Pedestrian Protection

Euro NCAP determines the safety of new cars from a pedestrian’s point of view by assessing the risk of injuries to head, pelvis and legs from various front-end structures including the bonnet and windscreen, bonnet edge and bumper. More points are awarded if Autonomous Emergency Braking systems mitigate the injury.

4. Safety Assist

This score is compiled from the driver assistance technologies that Euro NCAP has determined as offering the greatest safety. It monitors the inclusion of everything from seatbelt reminders to more advanced systems like Electronic Stability Control, Speed limiters and warnings, Lane Keep Assistance and Autonomous Emergency Braking.

How to compare the Euro NCAP test scores

While we wait for Euro NCAP to announce details of its new dual rating system, it’s worth understanding the current rating system as existing scores are likely to remain valid for many cars for some years. (Potentially until new models are introduced, and re-tested.)

As results are currently configured, you can look at the overall star rating for a swift comparison between models, but also make a more detailed comparison of percentage scores in each of the four main test categories. The Euro NCAP website also provides detailed breakdowns of how those category results were determined. There are important things to remember when comparing Euro NCAP crash test results though...  

When NOT to compare Euro NCAP scores

We’ve already described how the Euro NCAP crash tests have evolved over time, becoming more stringent and covering more ground with each change to the rules.

This means it’s not always easy to make a direct comparison. For example a model tested before the 2009 rule shake-up could have scored five stars purely on the basis of good scores in the impact tests. If the same model was tested under the new rules a month later, it might have scored only four stars because – for instance – it didn’t feature Electronic Stability Control (ESC).

It simply means you need to make sure you’re comparing like-for-like NCAP test regimes when looking at the performance of different models, this usually means only comparing cars tested in the same year.

How to jump-start your car

Chinese crash test shame

Further details on changes to the test can be found by checking the Euro NCAP website. Tests carried out under the old, less strict regime are catalogued under a group heading called ‘pre-2009 ratings’.

The 2009 changes attracted some criticism as Euro NCAP made no attempt to re-classify cars tested under the old rules so more direct comparisons could be made with models tested later. However Euro NCAP claimed consumers realised that safety technology evolves like any other, saying “our ratings are always time related, just as if you were buying a washing machine – one bought today will always be better than two years ago”.

There are also details of other key changes to the tests on the NCAP website such as testing of ESC systems in 2011, rewards for fitment of Automated Emergency Braking (AEB) systems from 2014 and the introduction of the full width crash test in 2015.

The official Euro NCAP star rating ‘verdicts’ 

  • 5 stars safety: Overall good performance in crash protection. Well equipped with robust crash avoidance technology
  • 4 stars safety: Overall good performance in crash protection; additional crash avoidance technology may be present
  • 3 stars safety: Average to good occupant protection but lacking crash avoidance technology
  • 2 stars safety: Nominal crash protection but lacking crash avoidance technology
  • 1 star safety: Marginal crash protection

Now check out our round-up of the safest cars on sale today...

For more breaking car news and reviews, subscribe to Auto Express - available as a weekly magazine and on your iPad. We'll give you 6 issues for £1 and a free gift!