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The high beltline of the latest Jeep Grand Cherokee, bulging fender flares of the Chevrolet Trailblazer and sumo-like stance of the Acura MDX may be good for more than causing switchblade fights among car-design enthusiasts. They could be an outward sign that automakers are making an effort to lower SUVs' center of gravity, making them more resistant to rolling over. Then again, such features may be purely cosmetic, while SUVs' improved federal rollover-resistance ratings may be the result of eased testing standards. Much like politics, religion and "Three's Company," whom you ask determines the answer you get.

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, gone are the days when the Pontiac Aztek set the high bar for rollover resistance (not to mention for "poorest selling" and "fugliest.") Latest ratings show car companies are making progress in keeping their trucks' wheels facing downward. Among 2005 models, 24 2005 SUVs and crossovers were rated 4 stars by the agency, up sharply from only one in 2001. While none of the 2005 models tested made the top rating of five stars, 39 made three stars, and only one was rated with a single star, down from 23 single-star losers in 2001. Still, safety advocates say changes in evaluation methods โ€” including the addition of a road test โ€” have padded the results, resulting in a statistical shell game that consumers ultimately lose. Among its tests, the NHTSA calculates a vehicle's center of gravity, or static stability factor, a score that carries greater overall weight than does the road test. Some vehicles, such as the Chevrolet Equinox, that tipped on two wheels during the road test, still recieved four stars, leading safety advocates to cry bullshit louder than a Texas ranchhand in Prada sandals.

Advocates had previously failed to get the agency to toughen its standards on roof strength.

Feds: SUVs now safer, less prone to roll over [The Detroit News]

Related:
Federal Safety Agency Not Likely to Require New Rollover Test [internal]

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