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The 90s Scandal Consumer Reports Hopes You Forgot About

The automotive world is no stranger to scandals. Some are the result of genuine product flaws or company misrepresentation, such as with Takata’s airbags and Volkswagen’s diesel vehicles. Others, though, like Audi’s unintended acceleration debacle, stemmed from driver error as much as product design. Which begs the question: which category does the Consumer Reports scandal belong to?

The Isuzu and Suzuki Consumer Reports scandal

When SUVs first began to really take off in the 1980s and 1990s, vehicles didn’t have all the safety features in place today. In addition, safety standards were looser—front airbags weren’t mandatory until 1998. And in automakers’ rush to get SUVs to market, inevitably, some compromises were made. These tall, heavy vehicles, with a high center-of-gravity, led to increased reports of high-speed rollovers.

1992 Suzuki Jimny
1992 Suzuki Jimny | Duncan Imports

To be fair, physics dictate that SUVs are inherently more at-risk to rollovers than passenger cars. Which is why Consumer Reports issued several “Not Acceptable” safety ratings to several SUVs it tested. Two of these were the Isuzu Trooper and Suzuki Samurai. In particular, CR stated the Samurai “easily rolls over in turns.”

At the time, both were very strong sellers. The Samurai actually sold better than the contemporary Wrangler: TFLcar reported that Suzuki sold 2 Samurais for every Wrangler in 1987. However, once CR reported its test results, sales dropped. The year after the report was released, Automotive News reports less than 2000 Samurais were sold.

Because of this, Isuzu and Suzuki sued Consumer Reports’ publisher, Consumers Union. Isuzu claimed the magazine had “defamed and disparaged” the automaker, according to the New York Times. And Suzuki claimed the magazine had performed fraudulent testing in order to achieve its results.  

Does the Suzuki Samurai rollover?

Firstly, can the Suzuki Samurai tip over? In the right conditions, yes.

The Spokesman-Review reported that Suzuki paid $90 million in damages to a woman paralyzed when her friend’s Samurai rolled over. However, Suzuki claimed the car had gone off the road and hit a driveway. In addition, CarBuzz reports that an internal Suzuki memo from 1985 read, “[I]t is imperative that we develop a crisis plan that will primarily deal with the ‘roll’ factor. Because of the narrow wheelbase, similar to the Jeep, the car is bound to turn over.”

But, for concrete evidence of Samurai rollovers, we need only look towards Top Gear USA.

That’s Tanner Foust, professional racing driver, and drifter. And indeed, his Samurai rolls over. However, notice where he’s driving: a race track. That’s not exactly a typical driving scenario.

Furthermore, as part of the court case, Suzuki presented footage from Consumer Reports’ own closed-course tests. CR had been using the same test setup for 15 years by then, and no matter how many times their professional test drivers drove the Samurai, it wouldn’t tip. Even at 55 mph, the little SUV stayed planted.

It wasn’t until Technical Director David Pittle deliberately changed the course, steering more sharply, that the Samurai tipped onto two wheels. But, even after test drivers used the modified test course, tipping over was difficult. The LA Times reported CR had to do similar sharper maneuvers to tip the Isuzu Trooper.

So, yes, the Suzuki Samurai can roll over, but so can many SUVs. The NHTSA found the latest Jeep Wrangler has a 27.9% chance of rollover, the second-worst SUV result. The question is, did Consumer Reports do something wrong?

Was Consumer Reports wrong?

On the one hand, CR knew the Samurai, and SUVs like it could tip and rollover. In fact, one CU staff member had experienced such a rollover in a Suzuki Samurai, according to an NHTSA report. It could be argued that, by modifying its testing procedure by changing the course and having an untrained driver behind the wheel, CR was simply replicating what’s likely to happen out in the real world. After all, trained professionals don’t drive like the average commuter. They’re generally smoother, more controlled.

However, the NYT pointed out that using the test course for that purpose might’ve actually been flawed from the start. According to the NHTSA, more than 90% of rollovers occur from the SUV hitting a guard rail, a curb, or running upon another vehicle. In other words, using a swerve to make the Samurai tip was always going to be difficult.

In addition, skewing a testing procedure—especially an established one—to achieve a specific test result is bad science. I used to work in a lab accredited to several government and interstate agencies. If we deviated from the official procedure at all, not only would our results be invalid, we could be fined, have our accreditation stripped, and even sued.

CR had also issued several “Not Acceptable” ratings before the Samurai came to market, using the established test procedure. Changing it just for one vehicle, but not bothering to update its results for others, isn’t a good look.

How did this end?

In the end, the LA Times and NYT reported, although CU didn’t pay any damages, it didn’t exactly win. A federal jury found CR had falsely reported that the Isuzu Trooper was more prone to rollovers. Although the Trooper was unsafe due to the risk of rollover, it wasn’t inherently more unsafe than any other SUV. Nevertheless, the damage was done: Isuzu withdrew from the US market in 2008.

Suzuki had its own moral victory. Again, CR didn’t pay any damages. But a jury found that the “easily rolls over in turns” statement could be misconstrued and misrepresented. CU and Suzuki eventually settled. Although CR didn’t retract its results, CU’s official statement read that it “never intended to state or imply that the Samurai easily rolls over in routine driving conditions.” Furthermore, CU also stated that US government studies had found the Samurai’s real-world rollover behavior was “within a range with other utility vehicles.”

However, as with Isuzu, Suzuki pulled out of the US market. Samurai sales stopped in 1995. While Suzuki still sells motorcycles here, it hasn’t sold cars since 2012.

How Consumer Reports’ scandal actually made it better

For its part, the Consumer Reports scandal did cause some changes.

For one, it stopped performing its own rollover tests. The publication now refers to results from the NHTSA and IIHS. The former performs actual rollover risk assessments, using both moving and static tests, according to Jalopnik. The IIHS, meanwhile, tests a vehicle’s rollover protection. Other automakers, such as BMW, even have their own rollover test facilities.

CR does still use a similar handling testing course. However, it’s now only for accident avoidance, not roll over. And CR has explicitly stated that its methodology is designed to mimic what a typical driver will experience in the real world. Also, the company still doesn’t accept ads, and it buys all of its vehicles from dealers.

So, while scandals like this can lead to improvements for consumers, it’s also important to note the kind of impacts they can have on people and industries.

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