Hyundai Elantra scores five stars despite airbag malfunction

words - Joshua Dowling
Safety authority under scrutiny after awarding top marks in a flawed test

The independence of crash test authority ANCAP has come under scrutiny after it awarded the highest possible safety rating to the new Hyundai Elantra despite an airbag malfunction during the latest round of tests, which were paid for by the Korean carmaker.

The Australian New Car Assessment Program, ANCAP, is nominally funded by state governments, motoring clubs and insurance companies in Australia and New Zealand. It does not have the power to ban cars from sale, rather it is a consumer guide which ranks the safety of vehicles according to a five-star rating system.

Established in 1993, ANCAP has long prided itself on its independence and typically buys new cars from dealerships anonymously to ensure the vehicles tested are indicative of those bought by customers. However, in recent years ANCAP has started working more closely with carmakers and allowed them to supply vehicles and pay for testing and analysis before a new model goes on sale.

Under ANCAP guidelines, carmakers have always been obliged to pay for the optional ‘pole’ test (required to achieve five stars). However, carmakers are increasingly funding the initial frontal and side impact tests that were previously paid for by ANCAP.

In the case of the Hyundai Elantra, Ford Focus and Nissan Leaf results issued this week, all three cars were tested prior to going on sale. This means the tests were funded in full or in part by each manufacturer – and the vehicles were supplied free of charge, not purchased anonymously from car dealerships.

Hyundai executives told the Carsales Network that Hyundai paid for the tests and supplied all three crash test cars free of charge.

ANCAP says in such cases it selects the cars “randomly” from a list of vehicle identification numbers (VINs). The chosen models are then delivered by the car makers to ANCAP for testing. However, this method gives carmakers the opportunity to double-check the safety systems of the vehicles it is delivering to ANCAP – a level of scrutiny that is not part of a vehicle’s normal pre-delivery process at a dealership.

In previous years on other cars tested, for example, ANCAP found seatbelt bolts that had come loose, airbag connectors that were loose and seatbelt pre-tensioners that failed. In each of these examples the cars were bought anonymously at dealerships rather than supplied by carmakers.

ANCAP business manager Nicholas Clarke says the safety body has not lost its independence despite receiving an increasing amount of funding from carmakers.

“We’re very comfortable with our process, working with the manufacturers and maintaining our independence,” Clarke told the Carsales Network.

“After we select them from a list of VIN numbers, the vehicles are … quarantined for our use. What happens to them between the time we pick them and the time they get tested, we can’t be certain. But we’re confident in our relationship with the manufacturers that the cars are representative of the cars that are available in the market. In the end that’s all we can and all we should be doing. I don’t think we lose any independence at all.”

Clarke said ANCAP had done a number of tests where cars supplied by manufacturers had encountered problems. The latest example, he said, was the torso airbag in the new Elantra which inflated incorrectly in one of two side impact tests.

“We’ve had tests with the cars we’ve selected from a list of VIN numbers provided by the manufacturers where we’ve had problems as well,” he said. “If they [the carmakers] wish to do something nefarious then we can’t stop them, but I have no inkling or remote consideration that they would do something like that.”

However, when asked why the Hyundai Elantra was still awarded five stars despite the airbag malfunction, Clarke told the Carsales Network: “In mass production you’re always going to have one component in tens and hundreds of thousands that can fail. Our investigations confirm that it was a component failure and we are more than satisfied it’s an isolated incident and the rating will stand.

“It would be… unfair for us to say, ‘well, you’ve had a component failure therefore you’ve failed the test’. Rightfully Hyundai would probably say, ‘well, can we do another test?’.  Some might say ‘no’, but I don’t that’s fair on consumers, on Hyundai, and doesn’t do anything for ANCAP’s reputation.

“The responsible thing to do in this circumstance is to look at the cause of the failure and to investigate whether it’s a systemic failure or a component failure. Our technical advice on the evidence gathered is that it was a component failure.”

The Elantra’s airbag malfunction is not easily apparent on the ANCAP website. The incident is listed in the last paragraph of the detailed analysis, on a separate PDF download rather than the results page.

The relevant section says: “During the side impact test the seat-mounted thorax airbag inflated but did not deploy correctly. However this airbag deployed correctly in the subsequent pole test, where the vehicle earned the maximum two points.”

Under the heading “Modifiers - deductions from side impact test scores” the ANCAP report says: “Chest. Incorrect airbag deployment … 2 point deduction.”

Hyundai Australia senior manager, product planning, Roland Rivero confirmed there was an issue with one of the airbags during the Elantra’s first side impact test. “It was a misbuild,” he said, adding that on the second, pole test “it deployed perfectly”.

In effect, although car buyers only get one chance in a crash, Hyundai had two chances to demonstrate the faulty side airbag in the ANCAP test. However, Hyundai Australia senior manager, PR and events, Ben Hershman said: “Although the airbag inflated but did not deploy as planned during the side impact test, the car performed well enough to ensure the Elantra achieved a five-star safety rating.”

Hyundai Australia director of marketing Oliver Mann told the Carsales Network: “The ANCAP test cars were selected from the first batch of production vehicles that had been shipped to dealers. Obviously ANCAP have to answer their own process. But as far as we’re concerned the three vehicles they selected from 30 VIN numbers were quarantined and we didn’t access or interfere with them.”

Hyundai’s Rivero said the new Elantra would have earned a five star rating whether Hyundai or ANCAP paid for the test.

“If we decided [to wait] and let everything be funded normally [by ANCAP], we’d still be telling you about it later, but the impact of the launch wouldn’t be as good,” Rivero said. “You either decide to do it now or … you wait, they’ll pay for it, and you don’t have a story on safety at the launch. In the end it actually became an investment for us: have a story or not have a story?

“[ANCAP has] ‘X’ amount of budget in a given financial year,” he said. “If you want a crash test in that financial year and they have run out of budget … in order to make an announcement in time for the launch sometimes you’ve got to resort to … paying the portion that they would usually be funding.”

Clarke denied that the ANCAP watchdog had become “cosy” with manufacturers.

“I think it’s cheeky to say that we’re cosy [with carmakers],” he said. “We don’t have the money to test all vehicles and occasionally manufacturers come along and provide some assistance. I don’t think there’s any question about the independence of ANCAP -- we’re providing a customer service.

“We’ve worked very hard … to develop a good relationship with the industry. This is not ANCAP cosying up to the industry… this is the consumer demanding they want the results [at the same time a new model is launched].

“[In the latest round of tests] we did a financial deal with the car companies… they contributed some money towards the overall costs of the tests and the cars.”

Clarke said ANCAP has a budget of between $3 million and $3.5 million to collate crash data each year, and manufacturer-sponsored tests freed funds to assess more vehicles.

Meanwhile, as a precautionary measure, Hyundai has checked the initial shipment of Elantras into Australia. A statement from Hyundai said: “Following advice from ANCAP that the side airbag had inflated but did not deploy correctly in the side crash test, [Hyundai Australia] conducted a technical investigation.

"Potential incidence was isolated to 53 Elantra units, which were then quarantined for two weeks until Hyundai was fully satisfied that there was not an issue with any of these cars.. Hyundai has determined that the incorrect airbag deployment during the ANCAP side crash test was a ‘one-off’ incident.
 
“Hyundai respects the independence of the ANCAP and complies fully with ANCAP’s processes.”

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Published : Wednesday, 29 June 2011
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