The Mercedes-Benz Vito van recently received the maximum ANCAP safety rating (with a 2014 date stamp). By making side airbags standard rather than optional from June production, it also got the rating cross the range, which it otherwise would not have.
Interestingly, the German company’s local division gives much of the credit for this important — some would say rather overdue — specification upgrade to ANCAP.
The promise of a five-star rating across the range from June/July production, rather than a split rating of four stars without the side airbags and five stars with, helped the company’s local arm convince its global head office to require no cost increase for the update, it claims, by giving it a little leverage.
In essence, Mercedes believes ANCAP’s new management puts greater emphasis on working with brands in a constructive and advisory capacity, rather than simply punishing them after the fact for falling short of stated requirements.
ANCAP took on former Australian Automobile Association communications director James Goodwin as its new CEO last September.
Mercedes-Benz Australia/Pacific light commercial managing director Diane Tarr spoke with CarAdvice recently, and said the relationship with ANCAP during the recent Vito process was “a slight departure”.
“We started conversation with ANCAP around November of 2014, to start that open dialogue and try to progress with an overall five-star rating [on Vito],” she claimed, adding that there were challenges and “push-backs” from former management.
However, in recent times, under the leadership of Goodwin, Tarr claimed that “we find a lot of openness and collaborative culture, and a willingness to work with us for a positive result”.
In other words, the company feels ANCAP has become better at advising car brands and working with them constructively on exactly where they’re falling short, rather than being somehow adversarial.
Mercedes-Benz Vans sales engineering manager Tim Clarke added that ANCAP’s greater willingness to align with European NCAP protocols — such as accepting the latter’s 56km/h frontal offset test — also helped, by clarifying the requirements from its end.
Responding to criticism that it should have made the side airbags standard in the first place — criticism that has come from us, we would add — Tarr said it came down to cost.
“ANCAP helped us to build the business case with Germany… We would have loved to have had airbags all-round but it was a price position, we wanted to launch the highest specification we could within the price point that would be acceptable,” she said.
The company says only 10 per cent of Vito customers paid extra for the side airbags.
We reached out to ANCAP CEO, Goodwin, who acknowledged that he had instigated a change in the culture of the organisation.
“If we issued a four-star rating without consulting, the brand would have had no impetus to go and get a five-star result or to improve the quality of the product. We used the power and influence of ANCAP to get safer cars on the road," he said.
“There is a new approach", he said separately, though added the organisation wasn’t going soft on car-makers. “We are consumer advocates as much as road safety advocates and what I want is to get the safest vehicles on the roads.
“With this approach it is not just about crash testing, we need to test vehicles to issue ratings… but also need to talk to brands and use our influence to advocate for improved technology on those vehicles to get safer cars on the road.
"We need to use various means, market pressure (via advocacy campaigns), physical crash testing to show what is the standard for what is a safe vehicle, and taking the approach that we need to talk to product planners, marketing departments and vehicle engineers.
“Let’s look at what you’re selling and see how can we get you to improve the specification of your vehicle.”