In the mid-1990s, it suddenly became apparent that European road car crash standards hadn't been updated since 1974. That needed to change, and despite manufacturers arguing that safety costs too much and doesn't sell cars, the European Union came up with new requirements for 1998. Right around when EuroNCAP testing began, Citroën decided to use Claudia Schiffer for a live crash test in order to market the Xsara. As you know, in the 1990s, anything was possible.
The EuroNCAP's 5-star system might not always seem fair, but it has certainly forced carmakers to deal with the problem of crash safety, especially when it came to their compact economy models.
Premium brands such as Volvo and Mercedes-Benz may have to stay on the top of the safety game since the seventies, but the same couldn't be said about the likes of Fiat, Ford, Honda, Kia, Hyundai, Mitsubishi or GM Korea. The French were somewhat quicker to react, and they decided to conquer the family car market using EuroNCAP stars as a major selling point.
The rest is history, but if you happen to drive a 1998 Ford Fiesta, instead of panicking about running into 2018 Fiestas, please note that my car is a 1985 Abarth.