The Baltimore-built Chevrolet Astro van, one of the most popular passenger vans in the country, is also one of the most dangerous, according to federal crash tests.
Drivers of this year's model have a 90 percent chance of dying in a 35-mile-per-hour crash into a wall, a slight improvement over the 1985 model's risk of 96 percent, but one of the worst performances by any van in years.
The results sparked outrage from consumer advocates, denials from some GM workers and an indication of concern from one GM official yesterday.
In addition, some safety researchers said the Astro's results reflected deep problems within the nation's largest carmaker because the tests showed little improvement over seven years, while other carmakers have improved their vans' crashworthiness dramatically.
"I think it is pathetic," said Jack Gillis, author of "The Car Book," a widely used reference for car buyers.
"This carmaker has given absolutely no consideration to the safety of a vehicle which it heavily promotes for family use," he said.
In results released Friday, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) said a test crash on Jan. 1 showed that while using seat belts:
* The driver of a 1992 model Astro van would have a 90 percent chance of a fatal head injury.
* The front-seat passenger would die of similar head injuries nearly eight out of 10 times.
* The chances that both would also suffer fatal chest injuries range from 21 to 34 percent. NHTSA considers a chest injury risk of more than 20 percent troublesome.
* The passenger would probably suffer a broken left leg.
The Astro's results compared poorly with competing vans.
A driver of a 1987 Plymouth Voyager, for example, has a 14 percent chance of sustaining a fatal head injury. Drivers of 1992 models face only a 3 percent risk. The Astro's risk numbers for drivers started at 96 percent in 1985, dropped to 65 percent in 1988, and jumped again in the 1992 model year.
Even the company's toughest critics said the blame for the poor showing shouldn't fall on the 3,300 workers at the Broening Highway plant who make the van. Some warned, that the local plant might suffer nevertheless.
"This is not a sign of poor workmanship," said Russell Shew, a researcher for the Center for Auto Safety, a Washington-based organization founded by Ralph Nader. "This is a design problem."
"People are going to look at these results and ask, 'Why should I buy an Astro when I can buy a Chrysler for about the same price. . .' This is going to end up costing jobs," Mr. Shew said.
But GM officials and workers insisted the Astro is safe, and demand continues to be high.
"This won't hurt Baltimore," said Rodney Trump, who heads the United Auto Workers local in Baltimore. "We build very high quality vehicles that are as safe or safer than other vehicles on the road. And we are constantly making improvements." Mr. Trump noted the plant has been working overtime for months to meet continuing strong demand.
David Wile, who helps assemble Astros at the Broening Highway plant and has driven one of the vans for years, said, "The crash test results aren't really as important as responsible driving."
One GM official defended the Astro, but indicated that the company is concerned about the results.
"We feel it is safe," said Jack Dinan, a spokesman for the Detroit-based carmaker. Federal law says that vehicles must protect drivers and passengers against 30 mile-per-hour crashes. The Astro and its cousin, the GMC Safari van, both passed those tests, he said.
NHTSA publishes the results of crash tests run five miles faster than the law to provide crashworthiness information to consumers.
Mr. Dinan pointed to insurance claim statistics that show Astro drivers report fewer than average injuries or accidents. He said the Astro's performance has remained about the same over seven years because GM is limited by its need to accommodate both cargo and passengers which leads to a boxy design that places the driver closer to the windshield and front bumper.
Asked if that meant people planning to use the Astro as a passenger van should look at other models designed specifically for carrying people, Mr. Dinan assented, saying "that is my personal opinion."
In fact, the Highway Loss Data Institute, a private insurance research group that compiles insurance claims, has found the Astro and Safari vans to be among the safest vehicles on the road.
From 1988 to 1990, there were 14 injury accidents for every 10,000 Astros on the road, much better than the 20-accident average for all cars.
Chuck Hurley, of the Arlington, Va.-based institute, said he is often critical of the government's crash tests, since they test only one accident situation in somewhat unnatural circumstances. But, he said, he would not buy a car that NHTSA said had more than a 15 percent chance of a fatal injury in the tests.
Insurance data show people's actual driving and crashing experience. But they also reflect the different driving styles of different kinds of car owners -- sports car owners tend to have more accidents than station wagon owners, for example -- and don't necessarily reveal the pure crashworthiness of a vehicle, Mr. Hurley said.
He noted that the Astro van did worse than some other passenger vans in the insurance data.
And he predicted the disparity in safety likely will worsen in the next few years as other carmakers install air bags. GM has said it will install air bags in all of its models by 1998.
The Astro's continuing poor crash test performance is reflective of deep problems within the nation's largest carmaker, Mr. Hurley said.
GM has spent millions studying safety and has made breakthroughs, he said, but it has been slow to install good safety devices.
For example, GM has been marketing its anti-lock braking system as an alternative to air bags, which are standard %J equipment on many competing vans. While anti-lock brakes are good, insurance data shows air bags will save many more lives, Mr. Hurley said.
The Astro and Safari vans combined are the third most-popular passenger vans in the country, trailing the Chrysler and Ford versions, according to sales data.
Terry Youngerman, spokesman for GM's Broening Highway plant, said the company built about 150,000 vans last year and is on a pace to build 190,000 this year. About 70 percent of the vans built in Baltimore are designed for passenger use, he said.