By John Crawley
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Three new models crucial to resurgent U.S. automakers received positive, four-star ratings in U.S. government crash-safety tests that were toughened in response to concerns voiced by safety and consumer groups.
The news was less encouraging for Toyota Motor Corp. Its Camry, the best-selling vehicle in North America, earned an average three stars and was outperformed by virtually every other vehicle included in a first analysis of 2011 models conducted by the Transportation Department.
Just two models, the Hyundai Motor Co Sonata sedan and the BMW 5 series, received the highest mark -- five stars. Hyundai earned the top score after making structural and seat-belt changes to the vehicle.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) will rate 55 models overall. More than a dozen ratings were released on Tuesday with more reports due in coming months.
NHTSA used a reworked rating system that measures front, side and rollover crash protection for 2011 vehicles.
General Motors Co's Chevrolet Malibu sedan, which accounted for 162,000 sales in 2009, earned good ratings for front crash protection and excellent in the side test. The Malibu's rollover ratings were also good, but that rating is more telling for sport utilities and pickups with their higher center of gravity.
Ford Motor Co's Fiesta compact posted scores identical to those of the Malibu. Ford is placing a large bet on the vehicle, whose early sales are promising.
Chrysler's Jeep Grand Cherokee four-wheel-drive SUV, a redesigned vehicle that is the first model to be reintroduced since the automaker moved under management control of Italy's Fiat, received the same marks as Malibu and Fiesta. A rear-wheel version scored only average marks for rollover.
The U.S. Treasury holds a majority stake in GM in return for bankruptcy and bailout assistance in 2009. The government owns nearly 10 percent of Chrysler, which also received aid last year as part of a court restructuring.
Crash data can affect sales and automakers will quickly tout any vehicles that receive good or high scores. Vehicle safety overall has received more public scrutiny this year, triggered by unresolved questions about unintended acceleration of Toyota vehicles.
Comparing Camry's new rating with ones from the previous system could be confusing. The 2010 Camry received high marks under the old ratings.
Toyota said in a statement that it anticipated Camry ratings might fall.
"Toyota engineers are investigating measures to further enhance safety performance so Camry again obtains outstanding assessment results under the new rating system," the company said.
Regulators were under pressure from outside groups to make crash test analysis tougher. With most cars earning top ratings in the past, critics said automakers had figured out how to manipulate the test criteria to their advantage.
"A change in methodology that creates greater variance in the scores will be far more helpful to consumers," said Jeremy Anwyl, chief executive of Edmunds.com.
Sales of the Hyundai Sonata, which competes with the Camry and is the company's top seller in the United States, are up more than 50 percent this year. Sales nearly than doubled in September to more than 20,000.
Hyundai voluntarily recalled nearly 140,000 new Sonatas in the United States last month due to a steering concern. Hyundai has notified dealers about inspections and said a small percentage of vehicles would require a minor fix.
(Editing by Steve Orlofsky)