Sad, But Honest, Safety Statement From Renault

Anyone living in a country where students undergo national testing in order to evaluate a school’s effectiveness knows one thing – teachers will eventually, inevitably, teach the test. If you have a pressing need to pass something, you don’t necessarily learn everything about a topic, you learn what you need to know to pass the test. I did the same thing for my CPA exams – I didn’t learn everything about accounting. I learned around 50% of what I needed to know, then I learned how to effectively index my text books so I could find anything within a minute (no, don’t get me to do your taxes).

One automotive equivalent of a crucial academic examination (a crunch test, if you’ll pardon the pun) is the regime of crash testing that new models have to pass in order to get a decent safety rating. In Europe, that’s the EuroNCAP regime.

A Renault vehicle chief has recently come out with the rather stunning, but perfectly sensible admission that Renault now build some of their cars specifically to pass the test – and no more.

The Captur is built without any rear airbags because Renault knew it would score well in NCAP without them and it would save money.

Pejout admits the Captur would be safer with rear airbags, while providing plenty of justifications for the omission. “It’s always a money issue,” he tells Carsguide. Asked straight-out if the Captur would be safer with rear airbags he answers “Yes”.

But he says rear seats are often left empty, that ESP stability control means fewer side-on impacts away from junctions, and that the Captur is still likely to get a five-star Euro NCAP ranking.

Pejout goes on to say that customers don’t count the number of airbags when looking at a car. They look for the EuroNCAP rating. If the Renault Captur has a five-star rating, which I’m sure it will because engineers design it with the EuroNCAP deformation standards all loaded into computer testing models, then the customer will be happy.

I think there are a few things to learn from this.

First, don’t think that Renault are the only ones doing this. Car companies make decisions about what to leave out of a car all the time and I’ll bet my mother’s life that Renault isn’t the only one ‘compromising’ the safety content of their vehicles.

Second, when you shop for a car, know your priorities. Renault are only doing this because they know what customers look for – the EuroNCAP rating. If their customer feedback told them that people were counting airbags then guess what you’d see.

Third, think about this story the next time you complain about the cost of a new car.

Fourth, there are plenty of people for whom Pejout’s reasoning is perfectly valid. I can’t remember the last time I needed a rear seat in my personal vehicle (my wife’s car – yes. Mine? No.). For a lot of people, rear seat airbag protection is unnecessary and ESP systems do indeed reduce the incidence of driver-induced side impacts.

None of that, however, takes away from the fact that we are in an age where car companies do indeed make (cost) conscious decisions to leave out technology that, if mindfully considered, should be considered a baseline essential for a family car. There was a time when car companies clamoured to see just how much technology they could fit INTO a car. Now we live in a time when they’re all assessing what they can leave out.

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  1. Wow. What I find most interesting about that statement is the safety vs. cost admission. In the 1970’s Ford was burned by the Pinto, as were many Pinto owners. Rather than improve the car, Ford found it more expedient to simply pay the fines and remuneration. It didn’t fly then, and I’m sure that it won’t fly for Renault now. (Of course, Renault isn’t flambeing a significant percentage of their owners, and so that may help.)

    Safety standards are great. They keep dishonest people honest for the most part. However, I worry when well-intending people start dumbing down to the standard. What does that say about that standard? Is it too lax? Are there loopholes? Has the technology come that far since the standard was established? Many questions.

  2. Do you remember the test with I think it was, a Saturn Vue. The US insurance company over here that does these test crashes couldn’t figure out how it manage to score so highly on its “back into a pillar” test, until they checked under the bumper. There they found a 4 inch cube of form almost directly where the post in the test would hit the vehicle. They realized that Saturn had figured out how to beat the test, so they removed the foam and re-did it. Suddenly the score jumped from $200 of damage to $1800…….

    It proves your point however that people build to the test. It does make Volvo’s look more attractive now that Saab is no more (sigh).

    1. Before retirement I had attended many tests at IIHS in Virginia where the all the testing (including the bumper tests) are performed. The gentleman that was in charge of the bumper tests at the time told me about the bar (a short one in the center of the bumper) placed where the pole would hit. They than reran the test offset from the bumper center and significant damage resulted. However the vehicle was a Toyota, not a Saturn. Supposedly there were other areas in both the safety and emissions area where Toyota was very clever. I believe this is a thing of the past at Toyota and that they have not played the test beater game for many years.

  3. You can see exactly the same happening when car makers mention the average mileage or emission outputs of a certain vehicle. They know the standard test lap and they know how to make a hybrid so it will pass with extremely low emission outputs as well. It actually surprises me this hasn’t changed yet, cause in a lot of countries this means a loss in taxes.

    Every Prius driving 150km/h reminds me of this.

    1. I agree. Of course, the test drives a lot if descions. For instance, why isn’t stop/start more prevalent on cars in the US? Because it doesn’t impact their performance on the EPA mileage ratings.

      We all, no matter our job, play to the test in ways that are both calculated and subconscious. I actually believe that those that don’t, suffer unduly. Case in point is the 5-cylinder engines in the last generation Chevy Colorado and GMC Canyon pickups sold in North America. By any real world measure, they were decent engines, with competitive levels of HP and torque. But the competition had V6s and consumers BELIEVE a V6 is better than an I5, so GM failed the consumer test. If they’d put a crappy V6 in, consumer perception would have been different.

      Just my 2¢…

  4. I guess the saying “You could never figure out why Saabs cost so much until you crashed them” has a lot more meaning now. As you said, nowadays, manufacturers focus only on design, cost and to do well in the euro ncap test. Tests which are incomplete, in my opinion. In stead of mainly focusing on passive safety , and packing up the car with electronics, they should also focus on good ergonomics, comfortable seats, good visibility, HVAC systems that don’t allow windows to fog, good headlights etc. Basically, build the cars like Saab used to.

  5. …so now it’s official – a fact that we all knew about for quite some time now. Car companies make their cars specifically to pass tests.

    While reading the article, I instantly remembered a farewell video for Saab made by Top Gear – the part of it when they make a comparison between a BMW and a Saab, dropping both cars on the roof. I am glad that Saab chose to be very careful when making compromises between cost and safety and all that more sad the company didn’t make it.

    On the other hand, even Saab did follow the same “catch the test” philosophy when it came to consumption and emission tests. The prime evidence of it is the 119 g/km CO2 emission TTiD engine. Don’t ask me about the real life emissions, because I can’t measure those, but average consumption is way above what the company claimed. Not that my 9-3 SS is not frugal, but it eludes my comprehension, how they managed to achieve 3,9 L/km on open roads and 4,5 L/km on average cycle, while after 60.000 km my top achievement on one full tank interval remains 5,45 L/km and my total average is exactly 5,99 L/km.

    Bottom line: I can live with more than claimed consumption, but safety is a very different issue.

  6. This also reminds me of the Saab approach to do studies on real-world accidents involving Saabs to find out what safety improvements could be discovered from examining things beyond the standard crash tests. This was not something I knew before I bought my first Saab (I just knew they had a reputation for safety), but it may be why when I eventually replace my 2000 9-3 I will think long and hard about getting another Saab vs. a new car of some other make.

  7. It really comes back to real-world standards and how they should be measured.

    As complex as they are, the military standards are about the best at simulating the real world, but they are cost prohibitive to test and implement.

  8. It is good that you are highlighting this here. It is something I have been saying for years and a key reason we buy saabs: Most car companies build to pass the test. Not necessarily as overt as the pole in the bumper, but they build the car to get the 5 star rating in those specific tests. This means the cars released are only as good as the specific tests. Saab and Volvo have/had real life safety programs that make a difference. They actually care about safety, not just do what they need to get the “5 stars” to advertise that they are safe.

    This was particularly evident back when the 9-3ss was first released and became the first ever car to get the “double best pick” from IIHS. The 9-3ss was designed before the specific test was implemented, but the test and the car both stemmed from SUV compatibility testing in the early 90’s (I remember seeing a youtube of a Range Rover T-boning a 9000, then one of the safest cars available). All subsequent Saabs were designed to address this, so when the IIHS test came out, the 9-3ss passed it *because the car was good*, All other manufacturers either did miserably in the test or withheld their cars from the test until the new model came out to protect their reputation. Volvo did alright, but not as well as the 9-3ss.

    All this is to say is that Renault’s admission is not at all shocking to me. What is shocking is that all those people who buy Hyundais and Kias and think that because they advertise “5 stars” that they are as safe as a Volvo or Saab, well, they are kidding themselves. Even “number of airbags” isn’t what matters. Sure all cars have improved over the years, but they are all designed to pass the test. It shows up when you look at real life safety data but nobody does that. To me that core value system is very important.

  9. In my mind, only three car manufacturers take (took) safety seriously; Saab, Volvo and Mercedes. And I am not sure about Mercedes nowadays.
    Thankfully, Saabs and Volvos input over the last fifteen or so years have made a lot of GM and Ford cars safer, but I would still go with the original.
    I am especially suspicious towards cheapy brands like Dacia and “Daewroolet”.

  10. I still find it terribly comforting to know that every time I step into my V60, I step into one of the safest cars on the road. The result of the newly introduced IIHS small overlap frontal crash test last year is in my mind still one of the best proofpoints there. Volvo has been performing these kind of tests for decades, others haven’t, and it shows. This image says it all: the Lexus on the left, the Volvo on the right. I like my legs and I would like to keep them, I can tell you:

    Driving a lot on Swedish roads, where these type of collisions occur a lot, I find it very reassuring I am driving a Volvo instead of any other car brand.

  11. Back in the 1970s, didn’t we in the U.S. have stricter requirements for the bumper test? They ended up relaxing the rules. If you look back to designs from that era, the bumpers stood out from the car—they did not look integrated—-but they also didn’t get 2000.00 damage from tapping a shopping cart.