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Claims rise as bumpers weaken

The decision of some carmakers to go to weaker bumpers is jacking up repair costs, asserts the Highway Loss Data Institute (HLDI). The HLDI reports a rise in insurance-claim frequency (the number of claims for collision damage filed) between 1983-model Honda Accords and Civics, with 2 1/2-mile-an-hour bumpers, and '82-model cars with 5-mph bumpers. For the Civic the increase is 14 percent; for the Accord, 13 percent.

In contrast, according to HLDI, all other Civic-size small subcompact cars with 5-mile bumpers had a 3 percent decrease in claim frequencies.

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When the federal government backed off on the 5-mile standard on 1983-model cars, Honda, Volvo, Volkswagen, and Chrysler opted to halve bumper strength to 2 1/2 mph from 5. Even the $150,000 Aston Martin Lagonda has the weaker bumpers.

Ford, Nissan, Toyota, American Motors, BMW, Mercedes-Benz, Saab, Mazda, and Subaru continue to install 5-mile bumpers. Companies that have failed to specify the level of bumper protection are General Motors, Fiat, Porsche, and Peugeot, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, a trade group.

The squeezed-in-a-corner Volkswagen organization in the United States may soon test-market a high-luxury Vanagon as it reaches for every opportunity to sell more cars.

Known in Europe as the Carat (accent on the second syllable), the upscale vehicle is a 6-passenger van that sells for about $18,000 in Europe.

The Carat is equipped with Mercedes-Benz trim and leather-bound seats that face one another in back - a ''beauty on wheels,'' report some Americans who have driven it. It should find some kind of niche in the US.

Officially, Volkswagen of America thinks it can sell perhaps 6,000 a year, but that may be high, a VW observer says. ''Maybe 3,000,'' he suggests.

If it does find a market in the US, the Carat would shift VW into an upscale area for recreational-type vehicles.

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Further, the timing may be right, given the sharp rise in RV sales over the past few months.

Four out of seven 1983-model cars flunked the Department of Transportation's latest crash test for protection against fatal or serious head injuries in 35 -mile-an-hour impacts - two subcompacts and two midsize cars. The subcompacts are the Ford EXP 2-door and Toyota Corolla 4-door; the midsize cars, Chevrolet Caprice 4-door and Dodge 600 4-door.

The crash tests are run by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). The cars travel at 35 miles an hour into a fixed barrier.

The test is designed to show how vehicles compare in providing safety-belt, dashboard, and other protection for front-seat occupants.