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The Auto Channel

WASHINGTON, John Crawley writing for Reuters reported that safety regulators delayed the release of new rollover risk data for three popular selling 2004 Ford Motor Co. Explorer sport utility models, while a fourth received low marks.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said it had problems analyzing data for the Explorers, as well as information on the Ford Mercury Mountaineer SUV, which were included in the government's first-ever road test for measuring rollover propensity.

The agency planned to retest the Ford SUVs. No date was set. The previous tests were completed over the past six months and combined with other factors, like design characteristics.

"There are questions and things have to be studied further," said safety agency spokesman Tim Hurd.

The company said its vehicles were safe and criticized the government's rollover test as unreflective of real world conditions.

Ratings on the Explorer are closely watched because of the vehicle's popularity and the troubled history over SUVs and rollover crashes.

Sport utilities represent about a quarter of all vehicles sold in the United States. Studies have shown them to be far more likely than passenger cars to be involved in fatal rollovers. Rollovers represent about 3 percent of traffic crashes, but about a third of all deaths in passenger vehicles.

Other SUVs in NHTSA's rollover tests posted average marks. The Volvo XC90 and General Motors Corp.'s Chevrolet Trailblazer four-wheel drive received the second-highest scores.

Hurd said there were problems understanding road test results for the four-door Explorer sport utilities, but he was not specific about what information gave engineers trouble and prompted the decision for retests.

The four-door Mountaineer, which the government says has the same design features as the Explorer for the purposes of measuring rollover, also did not receive a rating.

But the front-wheel Explorer Sport Trac was the only SUV analyzed that received the second-worst rating on a five-star scale. Regulators concluded that the SUV with a short pick-up bed had a 30 percent to 40 percent chance of rolling in a single-vehicle crash. The four-wheel Sport Trac did not receive a rating.

Ford said it was puzzled by NHTSA's inaction on the Explorer and Mountaineer and defended the Sport Trac as a safe vehicle.

The auto giant also questioned the government's road test protocol, saying the rollover trial involves an unusually severe maneuver called a "fishhook."

"There are many variables in the real world that affect a vehicle's performance under differing conditions," said Ford spokeswoman Carolyn Brown.

Joan Claybrook, president of consumer group Public Citizen, called the NHTSA rollover tests a good first step, but criticized the agency for not having a minimum rollover standard that manufacturers must meet.

"Vehicles can be perilously tippy -- earning just two or three of five possible NHTSA stars -- and still be sold," Claybrook said.
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