The National Highway Traffic Safety Admin. releases highly anticipated upgrades to its 5-star ratings system, but the agency’s loudest critics say it missed an opportunity to take the program to a new level of sophistication.

“We’ve taken a step forward,” says Jack Gilles, director-public affairs for the Washington-based Consumer Federation of America, a consumer protection group, and author of “The Car Book,” the group’s annual buyer’s guide.

“But the bottom line is there was an incredible opportunity here for NHTSA to clean up one of the most important safety programs in America, and they did not go far enough,” Gilles says.

Anne Fleming, a spokeswoman for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, an auto insurers’ group that also conducts crash tests and provides consumer ratings, agrees.

“These are not huge changes,” she says. “They are still nibbling around the edges. This does not represent a paradigm shift.”

Key changes to the ratings system include a single score that combines results from frontal, side and rollover tests and the addition of a small female crash-test dummy to the procedure so women and large children are better represented. NHTSA also adds a pole test to its side-impact exercise, which will simulate wrapping a car around a tree.

The changes, which take effect in testing ’10 model-year vehicles, conclude an upgrade process that began nearly 19 months ago.

The administration admitted its previous system had become obsolete as auto makers improved crashworthiness in recent years. In 2007, about 97% of vehicles tested achieved the highest 5-star ratings. NHTSA called the system a “victim of its own success,” while critics more pointedly suggested it “neutered” safety competition among manufacturers.

“Knowing how many horses a car engine has is important, but knowing how safe a car is before you even step into a dealership ought to be essential,” U.S. Transportation Dept. Secretary Mary E. Peters says in a statement announcing the changes.

“We want to make sure consumers can take safety into consideration when choosing a new vehicle, along with price, fuel efficiency, size and the color they like best,” Peters says.

NHTSA’s chief administrator, Nicole Nason, adds, “In addition to providing important information to consumers, the ratings encourage vehicle manufacturers to continue to design vehicles that reach an even higher level of safety.”

Gilles says the single score, rather than a star rating for both frontal- and side-impact crashworthiness, will help clear up consumer confusion and place pressure on auto makers to improve their overall safety.

Often, he says, if an auto maker’s vehicle scored poorly in the frontal-impact test but did better on side impacts, the OEM only would advertise the best number.

“They will have to improve all aspects of their vehicles,” Gilles says.

The new system will solve a gradation dilemma he says has plagued the program in recent years. But although it might tell consumers which vehicle scores a 5-star rating, the system still does not provide detailed information on how each vehicle performed in context to direct competitors.

“It doesn’t appear to me that NHTSA has addressed that,” Gilles says.

For frontal crash tests, NHTSA says it will retain the 35-mph (56-km/h) full-frontal barrier protocol, but also will update its test dummies and associated injury criteria to assign a vehicle’s frontal score.

Fleming says the IIHS, whose frontal offset-crash exercise complements NHTSA’s front flat-barrier test, would have liked to see more progress on the frontal-impact procedure, perhaps through the inclusion of a narrow object test.

“We would also like to see more research from NHTSA on why people are still dying in frontal crashes,” despite the safety strides of auto makers, she says, adding the IIHS is conducting that sort of research as it examines ways to improve its testing. A revamp of the group’s system won’t come soon.

“It requires a great deal of research beforehand,” Fleming says. “You must be absolutely confident.”

For side impact, NHTSA plans to retain the current moving deformable barrier test at 38.5 mph (63 km/h). But, as with frontal collisions, NHTSA will update the test to include new side-impact test dummies and new injury criteria to assign a vehicle’s side-impact score.

The side-impact score will combine results from the deformable barrier crash and the pole crash.

Both front- and side-impact tests now will include the pole exercise and the small female dummy. NHTSA also will conduct new procedures for leg injuries.

For its rollover test, NHTSA will continue to rate vehicles for their propensity to roll over but will wait to update its risk model as additional real-world crash data becomes available for a growing number of vehicles equipped with electronic stability control (ESC).

The rollover score reflects whether ESC, forward collision warning and lane-departure warning systems come as optional or standard equipment on a vehicle.

A new ratings program that considers the presence of certain advanced technologies and the new overall “Vehicle Safety Score” combining the star ratings from front, side and rollover exercises, arrive with ’10 model testing.

NHTSA says it will begin rule-making to include the new overall score on the vehicle’s Monroney label.

Like other government rule makers, NHTSA relied heavily on public comment to upgrade it scoring system. An examination of the commentary reveals extensive lobbying by consumer groups and auto makers, and between the manufacturers themselves.

For example, the CFA and Center for Auto Safety suggested NHTSA increase the front-impact speed to 40 mph (65 km/h) to “challenge manufacturers to post the highest speed at which their vehicles are tested, in order to differentiate amongst the performance of vehicles.”

But the Consumers Union, which publishes Consumer Reports magazine, and auto- industry groups opposed the increase, saying, “Increasing crash test speeds would not benefit the overall safety of occupants; but rather, it could cause vehicles to become stiffer.”

Subaru of America Inc. claimed a higher-speed test would not accurately reflect the vast majority of fatal crashes nor enhance NHTSA’s consumer information goals. In addition, Subaru said the new standard could lead to more aggressive vehicles.

“Testing at the speed they would pass would have been a great way to stimulate competition among auto makers and provide additional gradation between vehicles,” Gilles says. “It would also have tested vehicles closer to highway speeds, where the most severe accidents occur. NHTSA chose not to, and that is unfortunate.”

Auto makers offered different positions on the side-impact pole test. General Motors Corp. appears to have swayed NHTSA from adding it to the front-impact procedure, as the IIHS would have liked.

The IIHS and Subaru suggested the additional pole test, but GM claimed it would not improve structural stability or reduce injuries.

“(GM) stated that research in this area may yield only limited or incremental gains in injury mitigation, and that the public interest is likely to be better served by channeling resources into areas that could produce greater societal benefit,” The NTSA document says.

NHTSA also says in the document it chose to include the new rollover rating so consumers can make a more informed choice, although it considers ESC, FCW and LDW the only systems mature enough for inclusion.

“We believe that through New Car Assessment Program, we can provide an incentive to encourage accelerated deployment of (other) new, advanced technologies,” the agency says.

NHTSA acknowledges the promise behind other technologies, such as collision- mitigation braking systems, lane-keeping assist systems and side-object detection technologies.

But the agency says it does not have enough data at this time to estimate their safety benefits, so it chose not promote them now.