When General Motors Corp. rolled out its new 4-door minivans for the 1997 model year, the mood inside Ford Motor Co. turned from bad to worse. And with good reason.

Without a driver's-side sliding rear door like its competitors, the restyled Windstar was considered dead in the water even before it hit dealer showrooms.

In a feeble attempt to counter the competition, Ford chose to play up the "virtues" of rear-seat access through Windstar's jumbo driver's door, a last-minute, on-the-cheap engineered response to the 4-door models from GM and minivan leader Chrysler Corp.

But it was really another advertising decision - to emphasize how well the van did in government crash tests - that proved a winner for Windstar and set off a safety-related marketing slugfest of unprecedented proportions.

Since then, there has been a growing barrage of safety-related advertising from automakers. Mercedes-Benz television ads show cars barreling into barriers to highlight various safety features; Saab Cars and Volvo Cars each have touted anti-whiplash seats, while Toyota Motor Corp. trumpets its Sienna as the best in offset crash tests, proudly running ads of the smashed minivan.

"We're not stupid. We know what it means to the minivan customer," says a spokesman for Honda Motor Co. Ltd., which also is getting ready to jump on the safety marketing bandwagon in a big way. "It was obvious Ford was making great headway selling that safety message."

There's no question the method works, other industry insiders agree. Ford's 5-star Windstar ads, which loudly trumpeted front- and side-crash test results, resuscitated sales to the point the van actually gained market share in the face of stiff competition. The advertising also caught the fancy of consumers, which added "5-star" to their car-buying vocabulary and moved safety back near the top of the list of critical factors used in choosing a vehicle.

Still, not all auto executives are enamored with the trend. Already light sparring has begun over whether the industry should hype those star ratings in advertising, with many insiders insisting the ratings are downright misleading to consumers.

"To say there is one measure of safety, and that is kind of what the whole focus of (Ford's) advertising has been, is really a misconception for people because there really isn't any one measure," says Sue Cischke, DaimlerChrysler Corp. senior vice president of regulatory affairs and passenger car operations.

"A vehicle can do well in a particular test but may not do as well in the real world, or it may do differently in another type of test. As an engineer, I feel very uncomfortable when people are trying to use one measure for safety. If you really ask the technical people at Ford, I think they are uncomfortable about how much marketing has been done on the rating."

To get a vehicle certified for production, all automakers have to meet the government's minimum safety standard for front and side crashes. A second National Highway Traffic Safety Admin. (NHTSA) test, called the New Car Assessment Program or NCAP, is similar to the federal compliance standard but is conducted at higher speeds. These testsare purely for consumer information, helping buyers differentiate the safety stalwarts from the slackers with a series of star ratings that range from one to five.

"While it is not a safety mandate, it is a selling point," admits Donald T. Willke, chief of NHTSA's defects, analysis and crashworthiness division in the vehicle research and test center. "I don't think any automaker likes to look bad in those tests."

Publicly, DCC may be critical of Ford's advertising strategy. But behind the scenes engineers scrambled to make last-minute changes to DCC's upcoming 2001 minivan to boost its own side-impact test score, a realization, perhaps, that whatever shortcomings the government's NCAP tests have, consumers are looking at the stars.

"I think this notion of railing against consumer indices of that type is a loser," Helen Petrauskas, Ford's environmental and safety engineering chief, says of the NCAP scores. "They are out there; they are important to consumers. If they measure something that is reasonably repeatable, then we better get with it because that is a real world."

Whatever shortcomings the tests may have - and even Ms. Petrauskas acknowledges NCAP is not perfect - there's no doubt the star rating will be populating more ads from automakers notching top scores. Consumers also will see a bigger push by manufacturers to beat the competition to the punch with new safety systems to wow consumers and propel profit margins skyward.

The days of waiting for the government to drive safety improvements appear all but over, as automakers head to the market with such unregulated safety devices as back-up warning devices, night vision systems and side air bags. Volvo, which built its corporate reputation on safety, continues its ways, but is now joined by a host of others.

Mercedes-Benz's CL and S-Class this fall will feature adaptive cruise control, or Distronic. The system uses a radar signal to determine a safe distance between vehicles when cruise control is activated. Ford this year will add advanced air-bag sensors on its Windstar that will better control when to deploy the passenger side front air bag. The company also says it will add curtain air bags, which are not required by law, to its all-new '01 Explorer/Mountaineer that will protect occupants in side and rollover crashes. Mercedes currently offers curtain air bags on its CL and E- and S-Class. DCC also will have curtain air bags on its '03 minivans.

Upping the safety bar for nighttime driving, GM offers Nightvision on the '00 DeVille, a system that uses military infrared technology to greatly increase night vision. GM also says it will offer OnStar, including its automatic crash-notification network, on its entire product lineup. Besides helping locate lost drivers, the system also automatically telephones for help when the air bag in a vehicle deploys.

The proliferation of safety devices is moving so quickly on its own that last year NHTSA even went so far as to recommend the automotive industry outline voluntary standards for testing side air bags, rather than wait for the agency to dictate requirements.

With a plethora of new high-tech safety devices on the way and the likelihood of additional NHTSA star ratings to grade everything from a vehicle's stopping distance, headlights and rollover scores, more charged talk about safety supremacy appears around the corner.

"There clearly has been a shift in terms of the emphasis automakers place on safety, and I think there has been a shift in terms of consumer awareness and preferences with respect to product vehicle safety," says Robert C. Lange, GM's director of engineering. "Everybody is going to get into the game here. You will see more and more chest beating and table pounding on safety."

Consumer interest in safety appeared to peak in the late 1980s and early 1990s when manufacturers were touting new technologies such as antilock brakes and air bags. During that time, safety rose from a top 20 to a top five among key factors cited by most buyers in choosing a new vehicle. Only the more macho full-size van- and pickup-buying crowd seemed to largely ignore safety in making their purchasing decisions.

Safety interest cooled once nearly every new vehicle began to be available with dual air bags and antilock brakes, and manufacturers began to slow the pace a bit when it came to bringing new technological features to market.

But in the mid-1990s, the social attitude toward safety again began a dynamic upward shift, partly driven, automakers say, by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety's series of off-set frontal crash test programs that gained prominence via an airing on NBC's Dateline. Similar effects were seen globally with more elaborate consumer tests in Europe, Australia and Japan.

Those tests, combined with the intense media attention on air bag safety following the release of NHTSA's first report on the devices in late 1995, prompted automakers to increase communication with consumers about safety. In conjunction with insurers, auto companies formed an air bag safety campaign to assist in providing general messages about motor vehicle safety.

Ricardo Martinez, the former NHTSA administrator who left in October, credits the agency for promoting safety awareness among consumers, who in turn helped pressure automakers into making safety a bigger priority.

"We reached out to the public to put a human face on safety," Dr. Martinez says. "What I think we owe our success to is that there was a changing of the guard in the industry in Detroit that reflected a new culture. The new leadership embraced the idea that safety and environmental issues were an opportunity to improve their technology premium and the relationship with the customer."

GM's Mr. Lange says motor vehicle safety is an important public health issue. In the U.S. alone, direct cost associated with vehicle crashes totals about $150 billion annually. In addition, car and truck accidents claim 40,000 lives in the U.S. each year, with another 350,000 people seriously injured, Mr. Lange says. Despite that, until recently, manufacturers have been reluctant to talk about safety.

"I am not sure why that timid approach prevailed for so long, but it clearly did," he says.

For instance, Mr. Lange says GM lost a great advertising opportunity when it put side air bags in its Venture minivan in 1998, the first minivan on the market to do so, but failed to advertise it. He says that won't happen again.

"We lost a huge opportunity," he says. "I am embarrassed about it. I don't do the marketing side of the business, but I do complain about it sometimes. That is a recognized weakness in our safety communication efforts that I hope we'll see addressed in the next year or so.

"None of us are shy about it any longer. We not only talk about it, but we advertise it."

But don't look for GM and DCC to exactly follow the Ford approach. Lacking the 5-star emphasis, GM and DCC say they will focus their design - and advertising - efforts on making their vehicles safer for children. Both are leaders in aggressively promoting proper child safety-seat usage, offering parents free inspections to ensure the seats are properly installed.

And GM says its kids-first philosophy means that if making a safety change to benefit a child somehow isn't helpful to adult occupancy safety, the scale will be tipped to protect the child - even if it means sacrificing a 5-star rating.

"On a vehicle with a side-impact bag we might get a 5-star rating with a more aggressive bag, but we won't do that because to do that means you might endanger the child that is seated out of position," Mr. Lange says. GM decided not to install side passenger air bags in the new Chevrolet Impala sedan because of the danger they posed to children, he adds. "When we get to the point where we can deliver a side-impact air bag that is safe for kids, we will put it in, as well."

Ford has been the most aggressive among the Big Three with the safety message, but nearly every automaker now either is advertising or plans to tout high NCAP scores, or at least promote some aspect of safety. Vehicles that aren't getting high NCAP scores likely are those that are built on older architectures and weren't engineered to meet some NCAP crash conditions.

The new Dodge and Chrysler minivans, however, may be an exception. Although they should get 5-star ratings for front impact and driver's side crashes, DCC executives do not expect their minivans to earn top marks in all of the four categories in crash tests expected to be completed this fall. John MacDonald, DCC's sales and marketing chief, reportedly admitted as much to dealers earlier this year at the annual National Automobile Dealers Assn. convention in Orlando, FL.

DCC has declined to reveal the content of Mr. MacDonald's remarks at that closed-door meeting.

"I think we need to be careful talking about rating tests and stuff ahead of time," says DCC's. "There have been a lot of safety features added and a lot of other improvements made, and it will do better in both (U.S. and European) tests."

Company insiders familiar with the development of the new DCC minivan say there was a last-minute attempt to get the van a higher crash rating for the side impact for rear seat passengers following Ford's successful Windstar campaign. Unable to make serious design changes, which would have cost millions and delayed the minivan for at least six months, engineers were able to perform enough tweaks to raise the new minivan's side-impact test score from three stars to four, based on DCC's internal tests.

"That wasn't part of what the van was designed for," a DCC source says of achieving a higher score on NHTSA's side-impact test. "We didn't realize it was going to be such a big marketing issue. Right now it is a scramble to catch up." DCC already is working to achieve 5-star side test scores on its '03 model minivans, which will come standard with curtain air bags, company sources say.

Still, DCC says its internal marketing studies indicate consumers want auto companies to talk more about safety - and the automaker plans to do just that.

"We are going to rethink our strategy in terms of what we talk about and not be so conservative about waiting until we have it in production before we talk about it," Ms. Cischke says. "The fact that others are talking about it makes our quietness kind of sound like 'Don't you guys have anything to say?' We have a lot to say, and we are going to start talking about it a lot more."

NHTSA's Mr. Willke says he has no objections to automakers using the results as a selling point because it raises consumer safety awareness. And he refutes criticism the tests don't give a fair representation of how a vehicle will react in a crash. "It is not a direct measure of a vehicle, but it is one indication. I think they (star ratings) are good general indicators of vehicles. The difference between a four and a five, I don't know, but between a one and a five, that is a big difference. I would be much more comfortable getting the higher-scoring car."

And with good reason. Safety features were "extremely important" to 64% of buyers in 1981. In 1999 that percentage jumped to 84%, according to DCC market research.

Safety chiefs at the Big Three say the change partially is driven by an increase in the number of Generation X buyers, those born between 1965 and 1980, who shop safety more than Boomers and pre-Boomers, and women making purchasing decisions.

"Consumers want safety built into their products," Mr. Lange says. "They expect it. They will pay for it. And they will shop for it."

In addition to GM and DCC, other automakers also plan to get into the star rating game. Honda's Odyssey, which some in the industry regard as the new standard for minivans, has 5-star ratings in frontal crashes and is expected to achieve the same results on side crash tests, a fact Honda appears ready to advertise.

"You may see us doing something with that eventually," says the Honda spokesman. "For that market, safety is a key marketing point. Five-star has become a central issue."

Honda certainly plans to play up its 5-star crash ratings on its upcoming Acura MD-X sport/utility vehicle, which the company's internal testing confirms scored at the top on both front and side impacts.

"Safety is a top-line message for our MD-X," the Honda spokesman adds. "We want to clearly say that this vehicle isn't only perceived safe, but it has real-world safety performance. It will be a top-line message for us at the New York auto show."

Honda saw first hand the depth of success Ford was having with its safety campaign in a consumer test clinic for the new Accord. During that event, participants were asked what came to mind when they thought of Ford. Five-star was the reply almost universally. "The impression is the company is about safety," the Honda spokesman says.

But Mr. Lange, like NHTSA's Mr. Willke, says from a real-world perspective, there really isn't much measurable difference in safety performance between a 3-star vehicle and one with a 5-star rating.

"(Ford) has set that stake in the ground (to be five-star)," Mr. Lange adds. "I think their occupant protection people are a little bit alarmed by that because they know as we do that is not necessarily the optimum real world safety performance. I can't criticize what they are doing, but it is not what I would feel comfortable with."

Ms. Petrauskas admits the government's NCAP tests aren't perfect, but they do tell something about the behavior of a vehicle's structure in a crash.

"If you try to correlate the stars with real-world performance, my guess is, at least the last time I looked, there isn't a lot of correlation," Ms. Petrauskas says. "They are not perfect tests, but they are there, and we've done a lot of work and done a pretty good job in terms of performing well. And I think those kind of customer ratings are going to become more, rather than less, important."

Ms. Cischke says the star rating system is only as good as what buyers can do with it and how realistic of a measure it provides compared to a real-world accident.

"The difficulty I have with this program is that while it is a way to try to compare vehicles, what it implies is that the more stars, the safer the car," Ms. Cischke says. "There is a fallacy in that. It would imply that driving a four-star small car is safer than driving a big, massive three-star vehicle. Yet you know, yourself, that (the larger vehicle) will win out."

Physics, after all, is physics. But marketing is marketing - so don't expect automakers to pull any safety punches soon.