WASHINGTON -- Small sport utility vehicles performed poorly overall in the first side-impact crash tests by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.
Only two received the highest rating, and most were rated "poor."
Some automakers indicated the results, released Tuesday, will lead to changes in vehicle design. General Motors Corp. said it already has added the Insurance Institute's crash test to the tests it regularly performs.
The Insurance Institute tests are among the first to measure what happens when dummies the size of small women are hit in side-impact crashes.
Two 2003 vehicles with side air bags -- the Subaru Forester and the Ford Escape -- received "good" ratings, the highest. The only other vehicle tested with side air bags, the Hyundai Santa Fe, received the second-best "acceptable" rating. The remaining nine vehicles tested do not have side air bags. Of those, two earned "marginal" grades, and seven got the lowest, "poor," scores.
The results were based on vehicle performance as well as the extent of injuries caused to identical dummies in the driver's seat and left rear seat in a 31 mph crash.
The Subaru Forester offers standard side air bags with torso and head protection, while similar air bags are optional in the Ford Escape. The Insurance Institute found that the Escape tested without air bags earned a "poor" rating.
The Mitsubishi Outlander performed worst in the Insurance Industry's test. In an Outlander with no side air bag, the crash barrier crushed the side of the vehicle and struck the dummy in the head, causing serious injuries to the head, torso and pelvis.
Mitsubishi said it will review the test results but said the Insurance Institute is using a severe test that has not been adopted universally by automakers. The company also pointed out that it received high ratings in a front crash test performed by the Insurance Institute this year.
"In fact, the 2003 Mitsubishi Outlander has demonstrated very good real world safety performance," the company said in a statement.
The Honda CR-V and the Jeep Wrangler received "marginal" ratings, while the lowest rating of "poor" went to the Honda Element, the Saturn Vue, the Land Rover Freelander, the Suzuki Grand Vitara, the Toyota RAV4, the Escape without air bags and the Outlander.
The Insurance Institute automatically tested the vehicles with side air bags if air bags were standard. Automakers that offer side air bags as an option could ask the group to test their vehicles with the air bags as long as they agreed to supply the Insurance Institute with an equipped second vehicle. Otherwise, the only vehicle tested would be without a side air bag.
Ford was the only company that requested two tests, the Insurance Institute said. The Freelander, RAV4, Grand Vitara and the Wrangler do not offer optional side air bags.
The Insurance Institute said side-impact tests are critical, since many vehicles that perform well in front crashes still are vulnerable in side crashes. The boom in large SUVs and pickups also has contributed to an increasing proportion of deaths in side-impact crashes, since vehicles often are mismatched by height and weight, safety experts say.
In a report released last week, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said it is considering adoption of minimum head and chest protection requirements. The Insurance Institute also is working with automakers to develop voluntary safety standards for side-impact crashes. Those standards are expected to come out in late fall.
Robert Strassburger, vice president of the Washington-based Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, said Tuesday the Insurance Institute's crash tests in the mid-1990s led to improvements in front crash safety. He expects these tests will have the same effect.
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