Autos

Fast, Furious & Safe? Porsches and Other Elite Cars Don't Get Crash-Testing


First responders gather evidence near the wreckage of the crash involving Paul Walker, Roger Rodas, and a Porsche Carrera GT on Nov. 30, 2013

Photograph by Dan Watson/The Santa Clarita Valley Signal via AP Photo

First responders gather evidence near the wreckage of the crash involving Paul Walker, Roger Rodas, and a Porsche Carrera GT on Nov. 30, 2013

The death of Fast and Furious film star Paul Walker has veered into the courts. The widow of the driver in the incident sued Volkswagen’s Porsche division on Monday claiming design flaws in the 2005 Carrera GT caused the fatal November accident.

The civil lawsuit filed by Kristine Rodas, the wife of driver Roger Rodas, makes nine claims against the automaker, including false advertising and wrongful death. Rodas alleges that the suspension system failed before it careened off the road and argues that the Carrera GT lacks a proper crash cage and a fuel tank designed to contain spills.

Her lawsuit also disputes an investigation by police agencies and Porsche that found the car was going at least 80 miles per hour when it crashed. “Speed and speed alone” was the problem, according to the report. Rodas contends it was going far slower. Porsche did not immediately respond to questions about the lawsuit on Tuesday.

To be sure, the car in question is a powerful machine—that’s its raison d’etre. Its 10 cylinders generate 605 horsepower and can propel the vehicle at 205 miles per hour. The deceased likely appreciated the performance, no matter what speed they were traveling at the time of the crash. Walker and Mr. Rodas were partners on a car-racing team and, according to the complaint, Mr. Rodas owned 5 to 10 Porsches at any given time.

The equation for a sports car is not complicated: engine – weight = speed. Safety features often fall into the weight category. Airbags, for instance, typically weigh between 5 and 8 pounds—tiny numbers that add up quickly if the units are going in dashboards, roof pillars, and door panels. Reinforcing steel is even heavier. What’s more, aggressive drivers often customize cars, stripping out certain features after purchase.

The crashed Carrera GT did, in fact, have dual front airbags and supplemental safety bars, offset by Porsche engineers with that powerful alloy engine block and a hair-trigger ceramic composite clutch. The car’s carbon-threaded chassis weighed only 220 pounds. Was it a safe car? Not really if compared with a Volvo wagon. But it wasn’t particularly reckless compared to other road rockets costing more than $300,000.

Whether the Carrera GT carrying Walker and Rodas malfunctioned is a different question. Ultimately, the people who buy Porsches and other high-end vehicles have to take the manufacturer’s word on questions of safety. These vehicles usually don’t have an accepted measure of crash safety. The two U.S. groups that carry out extensive crash-testing—the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety—rate only vehicles that sell in relatively high volumes, and the European New Car Assessment Programme doesn’t crunch Porsches either.

Cost is a major factor. The Euro NCAP pays for some of the cars it tests and allows manufacturers to “sponsor” certain other models. NHTSA and IIHS, meanwhile, make a point of buying every car they test, which makes the return on a Porsche review pretty crummy considering the limited number of buyers. Ironically, the driving masses who can’t afford such an opulent ride have far more assurances about the safety of their more mundane vehicles.

Now that Porsche is gaining a bit of momentum with mainstream consumers thanks to two models starting around $50,000—the Boxster and the tiny Macan SUV— Volkswagen’s blue-chip brand may make it onto the crash-test list before too long.

Kyle-stock-190
Stock is an associate editor for Businessweek.com. Twitter: @kylestock

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