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[NEWS] Subscriber Extra: the thorny subject of star ratings

Subscriber Extra: the thorny subject of star ratings

5 star 582

Our road test editor explains what Autocar star ratings really mean – and why they may differ from those you see elsewhere

Autocar Subscriber Extra is our package of exclusive benefits for our magazine subscribers. One of these is a weekly behind-the-scenes email newsletter from our editors. For a limited time, we're giving all Autocar readers free access to these newsletters and columns. You can subscribe to Autocar magazine with our Summer Sale offer here and save 50% on your first 13 issues.

The Autocar star rating is a topic that inspires pretty frequent correspondence to our offices and inboxes. Peter Juel Thiis Knudsen, an associate professor and forensic pathologist at the University of Southern Denmark (who I hesitate to imagine I may enlighten in any way whatsoever) was the latest reader to write to us and ask why the scores we give on new cars don’t follow what a statistician would call a more ‘normal distribution’. That is, when we rank cars in half-stars out of a maximum score of five, why don’t we give more two-, 2.5- and three-star scores, and instead hand out 3.5-, four- and 4.5-star scores more often than any other?

The answer’s a bit complicated, and it’ll no doubt make me sound like a pedant, for which I apologise in advance - but the truth is that we simply don’t rank new cars in the same way as other titles do. There is a slightly abstract, wide-focus aspect to every Autocar star rating, because we try not to award credit in strictly relative terms.

If we gave the best car in any particular class or niche five out of five, the very worst no stars at all, and slotted everything else in between where it belonged on ‘overall competitiveness’ (eurgh), we would indeed have the normal distribution of scores that Peter expects. But by that philosophy, every class and niche in the car market would have to be treated like a world in its own right. There could be a sizable difference in overall accomplishment and fitness for purpose between a five-star supermini, a five-star executive saloon and a five-star sports car; and you’d have no way to tell from the score which of them might be the best car in the broadest sense. Moreover, a new car could get a 4.5-star recommendation in the week of its introduction but might well be only a three-star prospect by its first birthday, as fresher metal comes in and goes one better.

We try to make Autocar’s ratings more long-lasting and meaningful than that. Some erosion of any car’s rating is to be expected as it ages, which is why even our scores must be considered in the context of the time at which they were published. But for an explanation of exactly what a five-star car is and does - and the same for 4.5, four, 3.5 and all the way down to no stars at all - look no further than the first page of our New Cars A to Z data section in the back of the magazine every week. 

There you’ll discover that a five-star car is “brilliant, unsurpassed,” and if not quite flawless, “all but” that. You’ll also find that, broadly speaking, a 2.5-star car is disappointing but just about acceptable; a three-star car is average; a 3.5-star car is good; a four-star car is very good; and a 4.5-star car is excellent. I frequently have cause to explain to car manufacturer PR bosses and managing directors that a 3.5-star recommendation is just that: a recommendation. For most car brands, it shouldn’t really be cause for complaint.

For a new car to get a two-star score or worse, it must be below average in most important areas. A 1.5-star car is downright poor. And to go lower still, a test subject must fail to meet an acceptable standard in any area whatsoever; or be irredeemably flawed, awful to drive and use, patently unreliable, shoddily constructed, or downright dangerous.

You can imagine, therefore, with modern car design, development engineering and vehicle marketing having become the carefully practised sciences they now are, that the occasions we have to hand out ratings of less than two stars are fewer and farther between than the statisticians may prefer. As road test editor, I’ve known only a handful of occasions when we’ve handed out a two-star rating; and in 18 years of reviewing, I think I’ve had cause to hand out only one 1.5-star score. It happens, though; and when it does, you’ll know exactly why from the tenor of the review.

While the next Ford Fiesta may be the best car in its class, that won’t necessarily make it a five-star car. The next Ford Ecosport may be the worst, but it might still manage two or 2.5. That’s just the business of rating new cars as we call it, I’m afraid. At least this way, when the really high - and the low - scores do come along, you’ll know they’re being attached to cars of either genuinely outstanding and overarching merit, or truly rare and abject deficiency.

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