The zero star rating by the Australasian New Car Assessment Program (ANCAP) is the lowest safety score issued in the 28-year history of the independent authority.
Both vehicles combined accounted for about 10 per cent of all new mid-size delivery vans sold in Australia last year.
Previous examples of the worst safety scores include a one-star rating issued to the previous generation Mitsubishi Express van in 2007, a one-star rating issued to the Proton Jumbuck ute in 2008, and a one-star rating issued to the Jeep Wrangler 4WD in 2018 (later upgraded to a three-star score following changes introduced in late 2019).
A two-star rating was issued to a Great Wall Motors ute in 2009, and a two-star rating was issued to the Ford Mustang in 2017, before the US sports car was upgraded to a three-star score following updates to the vehicle in 2018.
The Mitsubishi Express van was tested to the latest ANCAP safety criteria after being introduced locally as a new model in the middle of 2020.
Although it is based on the Renault Trafic van which earned a three-star rating in Europe in 2015, rebadged vehicles are only eligible to share the donor car’s safety result if introduced within two years of the original model.
The Renault Trafic and rebadged Mitsubishi Express vans are identical except for the design of the plastic bumper and the badge on the grille – both of which are not critical to crash performance.
Both the Renault and Mitsubishi vans share the same body structure, which is at the core of crash safety.
The car industry lobby group, the Federal Chamber of Automotive Industries, which represents vehicle manufacturers, accused ANCAP of wasting taxpayer dollars.
In a media statement issued after this story was first published, the chief executive of the FCAI, Tony Weber, said: “Why is ANCAP spending potentially up to $500,000, which includes taxpayer dollars, to undertake a test on a six-year-old vehicle that has already been assessed by its sister organisation Euro NCAP in 2015? It makes no sense, can send a confused message to Australian car buyers and is not the best use of taxpayer funds.”
The Renault Trafic is currently “unrated” in Australia and not listed on the ANCAP website, however a passenger version of the van tested in Europe in 2015 was given a three-star safety score against the criteria at the time.
ANCAP and its European affiliate raise safety standards every two years, which partly explains the anomaly in the star ratings between the structurally identical Mitsubishi and Renault vans.
However, vans introduced before and since the Renault Trafic – such as the Ford Transit Custom tested in 2012 and the Toyota Hiace tested in 2019 – have five-star ratings, proving it is possible for a commercial van to earn top safety marks against a range of criteria.
That said, no van has yet earned a five-star safety rating based on the latest protocols, introduced in 2020.
Other popular vans such as the Volkswagen Transporter (four stars awarded in 2013) and Hyundai iLoad (four stars awarded in 2011) also have a higher safety rating than the Renault Trafic and Mitsubishi Express. The Chinese-made LDV G10 introduced in 2015 has a three-star safety rating.
A series of crash tests against moving and fixed barriers – conducted in Australia from October 2020 to January 2021 – showed the adult occupant protection offered by the Mitsubishi Express had “marginal” protection for the driver’s chest and upper legs and “adequate” protection for the lower legs. Protection was rated as “good” for other critical body regions.
“A high risk of neck injury was recorded for the driver in the whiplash test,” ANCAP noted.
In a side impact pole test, chest protection for the driver was rated as “marginal” and a penalty was applied because the latch on the cargo sliding door disengaged on impact. In another side impact test, the cargo sliding door deformed and created a large opening.
Another penalty was applied in one of the crash tests due to an “uninflated area of the head-protecting (driver’s side curtain) airbag”.
The results from five crash tests involving four vehicles led to the Mitsubishi Express earning a score of 55 per cent for occupant protection – the equivalent of a two-star rating if assessed in isolation to today’s standards.
By comparison, the most recent van to be awarded a five-star safety rating, the current Toyota Hiace, earned a score of 94 per cent for occupant protection.
After the Mitsubishi Express scored just 7 per cent for safety assistance technology, it earned a zero star score overall.
Under the latest ANCAP safety criteria, a vehicle’s overall star rating is determined by the weakest score from a series of tests.
The Mitsubishi earned points for having seatbelt reminders but was penalised heavily for a lack of crash-avoidance technology such as autonomous emergency braking, blind zone warning, and rear cross-traffic alert – features which are increasingly becoming standard on most new vehicles.
A statement from ANCAP said the safety standards of the Mitsubishi Express “do not align with today’s safety expectations”.
ANCAP said the “poor result” for the Mitsubishi Express van “sends a clear signal to manufacturers and their global parent companies that safety must be prioritised in all segments offered to the Australasian market.”
ANCAP chief executive officer, Carla Hoorweg, told CarAdvice: “The vehicle is a workplace for the majority of van drivers, meaning they generally spend more time on the road than the average motorist, (and therefore) van drivers should have access to models offering the highest levels of safety.”
The zero star rating will see the Mitsubishi Express “ineligible for purchase by a wide range of fleets and commercial buyers that, for many years, have required five-star rated vehicles,” ANCAP said in a media statement.
The Renault Trafic and rebadged Mitsubishi Express both meet Australian Design Rules (ADR) and regulatory standards for vans.
However, industry experts say Australian Design Rules are set at a lower threshold compared to the latest global safety standards – which is why ANCAP and its international affiliates have become the default crash test authority.
Despite its role as the default crash test authority, ANCAP – an independent body funded by state and federal governments, insurance companies, and motoring clubs such as the NRMA, RACV, RACQ, RAA, RAC and others – does not have the power to ban cars from sale in Australia.
ANCAP was established in 1993 to create a star-rating vehicle safety guide – similar to star ratings on whitegoods – to highlight the differences in crash protection on popular cars. Since then, ANCAP has conducted thousands of tests and published safety data on more than 700 vehicles.
Despite the zero star ANCAP safety rating, Mitsubishi Australia said the result “indicates a good level of adult occupant protection overall.” However, certain elements of occupant protection were rated as “marginal” by the safety authority.
In both the Mitsubishi Express and Renault Trafic vans, three-seater versions are equipped with five airbags (two front, two curtain and one thorax airbag in the driver’s seat) and two-seater versions are equipped six airbags (because both the driver and front passenger seats have thorax airbags).
Representatives for Mitsubishi and Renault said their vans were designed in accordance with 2015 safety protocols.
“There has been significant movement in the application of driver assistance technologies since that time, which has been reflected in the new (safety standards) against which this van has been tested,” a statement from Mitsubishi said.
A statement from Renault said the Trafic was tested by Euro NCAP when it was launched in 2015 and earned a three-star safety rating. “That rating has not changed,” said a Renault Australia spokesperson.
Industry analysts say commercial vans such as the Renault Trafic and Mitsubishi Express typically have a model lifecycle of about 10 years, and these examples in particular are now paying the price for a lack of regular safety updates.
In contrast, Ford and Volkswagen have made regular upgrades to the safety features of their ageing vans. Toyota has recently released an all-new Hiace, and the Hyundai iLoad is due to be replaced in the next 12 months after being introduced locally 13 years ago, in 2008.
“We encourage manufacturers not to delay in offering the latest safety technologies and improved body structures to this segment,” said Ms Hoorweg.
Late last year, Renault unveiled an updated passenger version of the Trafic with extra safety features, however the model is yet to go on sale in Europe or Australia – and Mitsubishi is yet to announce if future versions of the Express will receive safety technology upgrades.
Even with additional crash prevention technology due in the coming years, the Renault and Mitsubishi twin vans still have significant room for improvement in the body structure's crash-worthiness, which is unlikely to change until a completely new generation arrives.
If history is a guide, all-new versions of the Renault Trafic and Mitsubishi Express could be about five years away.