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Auto insurance: easing the bill for owners of solidly built cars

Kicking tires and slamming doors may take on added importance for new car buyers who make their selections with an eye toward insurance premiums as well as gas mileage.

A growing number of insurance companies are offering discounts on collision coverage for autos that suffer less damage in accidents and have lower repair costs than other cars in the same price range, according to the Insurance Information Institute, an association representing some 200 insurance companies nationwide.

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Depending on the car, insurance savings of $50 to $100 a year are common under these new criteria, says Walter Greenfield, a director of personal insurance at Aetna Life & Casualty, one of the nation's largest auto insurers.

Examples of the savings companies are offering on collision premiums based on the new criteria include:

* Aetna Life & Casualty, which offers discounts of 10 to 17 percent on cars with "favorable collision experience in comparison to other comparably priced new cars." These include, among others, Cadillac Seville, Oldsmobile Custom Cruiser, Delta 88 four-door, Chrysler Newport, and Pontiac Bonneville four-door and wagon.

* Motors Insurance Corporation (MIC), a subsidiary (GMAC), is offering up to 17 percent off on collision premiums for GM's J-cars, including the Chevrolet Cavalier, Pontiac J-2000, and Cadillac Cimarron.

* State Farm Mutual Insurance Company, the world's largest auto insurer, is lopping 15 percent off premiums for 1980 and 1981 models of the Buick Century, LeSabre, and Electra; Cadillac Seville; and the Chevrolet Malibu, among others.

The new rating criteria are in addition to the traditional practice of setting rates based on the price and type of car, a motorist's driving record, the claims rate for the area in which the driver lives, and other factors, insurance industry experts explain.

The new procedure appears to have received impetus from the publication last December of "The Car Book," by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. In the book, the NHSA rates a number of cars according to their insurance and accident costs. While insurance companies are, in the main, required to set their rates according to their own statistical experience with specific cars, some of the findings in "The Car Book" parallel those of auto insurers.

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For example, the NHSA publication concludes generally "that cars with four doors tend to be damaged less than cars with two doors."

It's unclear at this point how great a role the new discounts may play in the consumer's decision to purchase one car model over another. According to John Andrews, a GMAC spokesman, "it may be a factor" when people choose between similiar-sized cars in the same basic price range. However, Aetna spokeswoman Linda Ambrose says it's impossible to gauge the exact relationship between lower premiums and car sales.

Joseph Hagarty, senior vice-president of the American Mutual Insurance Alliance, a legislative lobbying group, believes that when more consumers switch from bigger cars damage claims may be reduced and thus a tighter lid might be kept on insurance rates.

It should be noted that both "The Car Book" and private insurers say surcharges, as opposed to discounts, are made when the company's data show that a model suffers more damage in an accident than comparably priced cars. The public should check with individual insurance companies or a gents about what to expect, experts says.

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