BMW and Hyundai were the big winners as federal safety regulators unveiled an updated safety ratings system for passenger cars. The upgraded ratings system will now evaluate side pole crash testing and crash prevention-technologies. And, for the first time, it will use female crash test dummies to simulate crash scenarios involving women, not just men.

The BMW 5 Series four-door, rear-wheel-drive sedan received a 4 for Overall Frontal Crash Rating and 5's for Overall Side Crash Rating and Rollover Rating for an Overall Vehicle Score of 5.

A late model-year release of the Hyundai Sonata received identical scores. An earlier Sonata release received an overall rating of 4, as did 27 other makes and models. Two models of Toyota Camry received ratings of 3 and one vehicle -- a Nissan Versa - got a 2-star rating.

the The Department of Transportation (DOT) and National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) have unveiled an enhanced 5-Star Safety Ratings System for new vehicles. At the same time DOT Secretary Ray LaHood and NHTSA Administrator David Strickland released the safety ratings for the first model year 2011 vehicles tested under the program.

"More stars equal safer cars," said Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. "With our upgraded Five-Star Safety Ratings System, we're raising the bar on safety. Through new tests, better crash data, and higher standards, we are making the safety ratings tougher and more meaningful for consumers."

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) welcomes the revised standards, saying the government "has taken a step in the right direction to beef up its testing program."

Changing the grades

Vehicle safety ratings range from one to five stars, with one star being the lowest and five stars the highest. Because so many vehicles had reached the highest rating under the old rating criteria, and because the new standards are much more rigorous, not all previously rated 5-star vehicles will remain at five stars.

The new 5-Star Safety Ratings System evaluates the safety of passenger cars, SUVs, vans and pickup trucks in three broad areas -- frontal crash, side crash, and rollover resistance. For model year 2011, NHTSA will rate 24 passenger cars, 20 sport utility vehicles, two vans and nine pickups under the new ratings system.

"We want consumers to embrace these new safety technologies as a way to make vehicles safer," said NHTSA Administrator David Strickland. "We believe electronic stability control, lane departure warning, and forward collision warning offer significant safety benefits and consumers should consider them when buying a new car."

Ratings and consumers

One of the most significant changes to the ratings program for consumers is the addition of an Overall Vehicle Score for each vehicle tested. That score combines the results of a frontal crash test, side crash tests and rollover resistance tests and compares those results to the average risk of injury and potential for vehicle rollover of other vehicles.

NHTSA recommends consumers consider vehicles with crash avoidance technologies that meet the 5-Star Safety Ratings minimum performance tests, such as forward collision warning (FCW), lane departure warning (LDW), and electronic stability control (ESC). All of the 2011 model year vehicles currently rated have ESC as standard, except for the Nissan Versa, in which it is optional.

IIHS spokesman Russ Rader points out that his organization and the government "test for different aspects of performance" and that that when considering a purchase, "consumers should look for vehicles that perform well in both sets of tests."

More information, including the full list of newly-rated vehicles is available at, the official Website for the Federal government's 5-Star Safety Ratings Program. There, consumers can also find comprehensive information about safe driving, vehicle defects, safety recalls, and passenger safety.