Some Ford sport utility vehicles, including models of the best-selling Explorer and the Mountaineer, are among the worst on the road for rollover risk, the US government reportedly said on Monday.

According to Reuters, the Explorer Sport Trac two-wheel drive posted the single worst rating for rollover propensity among all 2004 vehicles analysed – including cars, vans and SUVs – in updated safety ratings released by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

The Explorer Sport Trac four-wheel drive, the Explorer four-door, two-wheel drive, and the Mountaineer four-door, two-wheel drive (a corporate twin of the Explorer) were in the bottom six of the SUV class, which as a group posted the lowest scores, the report added.

The news agency noted that safety experts concluded long ago that sport utilities are more prone to roll than passenger cars in single-vehicle crashes, but the government’s five-star safety ratings were criticised as incomplete and overly vague.

To address that concern, NHTSA for the first time assigned a percentage risk for rollover to its star ratings, which are based on a mathematical calculation of a vehicle’s measurements and a road test that includes extremely sharp turns, Reuters said.

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Most cars reportedly did better than the highest-ranked sport utility for rollover safety. Minivans, including the Nissan Quest, also outperformed the SUV class. Pickups were similar to the underperforming SUVs but fared worse than vans and cars.

According to Reuters, the the government said the safest vehicle overall, the Mazda RX-8 four-door, has an 8% chance of rolling over while, in comparison, the two-wheel drive Explorer Sport Trac has a nearly 35% chance.

DaimlerChrysler’s Pacifica four-wheel drive was the top rated SUV at 13%, although one safety engineer said it performs more like a station wagon than a traditional sport utility, the report noted.

In response, Ford reportedly said its own analysis show Explorer models perform similarly or better than other vehicles in the same class.

“We’re trying to work through the data and see how NHTSA’s applying these numbers. While we believe the NHTSA rating system has some value, we don’t believe it’s a good indicator of how a vehicle performs in the real world,” Ford spokeswoman Kristen Kinley told Reuters.

The news agency noted that Explorers are closely watched because of the vehicle’s popularity and troubled rollover history – the models were involved in most deadly crashes linked several years ago to defective Firestone tyres.

Reuters noted that rollovers represent only a small fraction of crashes on US roads but a quarter of all traffic deaths, which rose to 43,000 in 2003.

Jeffrey Runge, administrator of the highway safety agency and outspoken on SUV risks, reportedly stopped well short of supporting a suggestion that government order low-rated vehicles off the road. “We can accomplish a lot with consumer information,” Runge told Reuters as he underscored the importance of the new ratings. “If no one buys vehicles that roll over then manufacturers will probably stop making them.”

Joan Claybrook, president of consumer group Public Citizen and a former NHTSA administrator, told the news agency the new ratings can be difficult for many consumers to obtain and should also be placed on the vehicle’s window sticker at the showroom.