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The US motor industry’s best-selling sport utility vehicle, the Ford Explorer, has posted average scores in the government’s most extensive analysis yet of its risk for rollover, according to Reuters.

The report said Explorer ratings are closely watched because of the vehicle’s immense popularity and troubled history in rollover crashes as well as a greater propensity of SUVs to roll – National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) chief Jeffrey Runge has made reducing SUV rollover deaths a priority.

Reuters said the agency on Monday released long-delayed data on new rollover risk tests for the most popular Explorer models, showing they performed overall about the same as other vehicles in their class.

The Explorer was involved in most of the deadly rollover and other crashes blamed on defective Firestone tyres, a debacle that led to two massive tyre recalls in 2000 and 2001, the news agency noted, adding that Explorer models in recent years have been redesigned with a lower centre of gravity and other changes to reduce rollover.

The four-wheel and front-wheel drive Explorer, both four-door vehicles, scored a “three” in NHTSA’s five-star rating system in which “five” is the best, Reuters said, noting that a three-star rating means rollover risk is between 20 and 30%.

The front-wheel drive vehicle earned an average rating even though it tipped on two wheels during the government’s handling test, the report added.

“It was slowing to a stop and travelling less than five miles per hour when the rear-wheel lift occurred. From our perspective, the vehicle did very well,” Ford spokeswoman Kristen Kinley told Reuters, adding: “It’s a tough test.”

Kinley reportedly said the 2005 Explorers will feature technology that will activate braking systems when sensors indicate a rollover is imminent.

Reuters noted that Ford’s Mercury Mountaineer SUV series is built on the same chassis as the Explorer and posted the same results in rollover tests.

The report said SUVs represent about a quarter of vehicles sold in the United States and studies have shown them to be far more likely than cars to be involved in fatal rollovers. Rollovers reportedly represent about 3% of crashes, but about a third of deaths in passenger vehicles; SUVs are considered more rollover prone because of their high centre of gravity.

According to Reuters, consumer and safety groups have long targted SUVs as unsafe and are pressuring the government to require tougher design standards – congressional lawmakers are close to starting negotiations on a final version of long-term highway legislation that could mandate SUV safety changes.

David Pittle, senior vice president for technical operations at Consumers Union, which publishes Consumer Reports magazine, told the news agency the new rollover rating system is flawed.

“When a vehicle tips up on two wheels during the rollover testing programme, that should drop its score. But that doesn’t currently happen. We believe tipping up is a serious performance consideration,” Pittle told Reuters.