WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Crash tests of some popular mid-size sport utility vehicles turned in unexpectedly mixed performance in side-impact tests, a leading insurance group said on Thursday.
The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety found some late-model SUVs performed worse than cars, a result that challenges a belief among consumers that sport utilities are safer in some crashes because the vehicles are heavier than cars and passengers are seated higher.
“The performance of some of these models in the side test was surprising,” said David Zuby, who heads the crash-test program at the insurance institute.
The insurance group conducts a range of tests on new models each year that are independent of the U.S. government’s crash test program.
Automakers stood by the performance of their vehicles in the recent tests that illustrated the importance of side airbags to protect the torso. Side strength of some vehicles performed worse than others, the tests also showed.
Manufacturers of the best-selling sport utilities, including Ford Motor Co, General Motors Corp and Chrysler LLC, have made design changes and added stability systems to address rollover. Improvements also have been made to boost the performance in frontal crash tests.
The institute noted that “SUVs are safer than they were just a few years ago” but none of the six vehicles in the latest round of tests earned the group’s top safety rating in all categories -- front, side and rear crash protection.
“People often think they’re safer in one of these vehicles but many cars hold up better than some of these mid-size SUVs in this test,” Zuby said of the side-impact assessment.
Performance varied in the group’s tests that used a movable barrier to strike the side of a vehicle. The test simulates an SUV or pickup traveling at 31 miles per hour.
Two Nissan SUVs, the Pathfinder and the Xterra, posted good ratings -- the highest -- but only when equipped with optional side airbags. Without the airbags, the vehicles earned marginal scores -- the second worst on a four-rating scale: good, acceptable, marginal and poor.
The 4Runner, made by Toyota Motor Corp, equipped with standard side airbags received a good rating. The side structure of the 4Runner, Pathfinder, and Xterra allowed less intrusion into the vehicle interior than other SUVs tested.
The Ford Explorer scored acceptable but impact intrusion into the vehicle contributed to the possibility of injury, despite standard side airbags that protect the torso and head.
But Chrysler’s Jeep Grand Cherokee and the Chevrolet TrailBlazer, one of the top SUVs made by GM, posted marginal scores. The two are equipped with standard side airbags for head protection but do not include similar technology for the torso. But the vehicles also had “weak side structures” that allowed “a lot of intrusion,” the insurance group said. The Grand Cherokee scored the worst of all of the vehicles tested for resisting forces of the barrier.
Nissan and the other automakers expressed confidence in their vehicles and noted the models involved met or exceeded government safety standards for the same tests. The insurance institute side-impact test is considered by some experts to be tougher than the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration test that mimics a car traveling at higher speed.
A GM spokesman called the insurance industry test “severe” and a Chrysler statement said “no single test can determine a vehicle’s overall safety performance.”
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