New cars and trucks have advanced to the point where most U.S. government crash testing offers a perfunctory four or five stars for protecting passengers from head-on and side impact crashes. But a new test of the 2012 Ram 2500 heavy-duty pickup resulted in not just an unusually low rating, but smoke and fire from the truck after the crash -- the only such incident in a vehicle tested this year.
The head-on crash of a Ram conducted in March by a contractor for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration followed the standard procedure for all such tests. Using a crash dummy for an adult man in the driver's seat and an adult female in the passenger seat, the vehicle is towed at 35 mph into a hard barrier. By measuring the forces on the dummies during the test, researchers can estimate what kind of injuries real passengers might suffer in severe front-end crashes.
The outcome wasn't good news for the Ram, with NHTSA giving it only two stars for driver protection -- meaning the driver is more likely to suffer injuries in a typical collision -- and three stars for passenger safety. Only one other vehicle tested so far by NHTSA this year also received two stars for front-crash safety, the 2012 Acura TL.
Shortly after the test, NHTSA says, "smoke and flames were observed from the engine compartment." None of the available NHTSA photos or videos captured the fire, but this picture of the truck's engine compartment after the crash does show signs of burning around where the radiator smashed into the Hemi V-8 engine. NHTSA says the fire caused it to look for any reports of fires after crashes in Ram pickups between 2006 and 2012, but that it did not see "a safety defect related trend."
Chrysler spokesman Eric Mayne said the company's engineers were present when the test happened, and was working with NHTSA to figure out a cause. The company "is unaware of any reports of similar incidents involving the Ram 2500 truck," and has tasked engineers with improving its performance on future crash tests.
It's not that a single result from a crash test says much about the safety of the Ram pickup. It's that the competition for heavy-duty pickup buyers has risen to such a level that any weakness will be noted by your neighborhood truck salesmen. Given that heavy-duty pickups remain among the most profitable vehicles sold by Detroit automakers, Chrysler will likely treat any solution as a burning issue.