SUV safety improves, but soft spots remain
Highway safety group says Hummer H3, Jeep are less than stellar. Names Nissan Murano as a top safety pick.
NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- Midsize SUVs are becoming safer, but side and rear impact crashes remain a weakness, according to recent testing by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.
The IIHS conducts crash tests in three main areas: font, side and rear. Of the ten vehicles tested, nearly all received the top rating of "good" in the frontal crash protection test.
The one exception was General Motors' (GM, Fortune 500) Hummer H3, which earned an "acceptable" rating in the front evaluation, one step below "good" on the scale. The 2008 H3 also received an "acceptable" rating in the side evaluation and a "poor" rating, which is the lowest possible score, in the rear crash protection test.
Nick Richards, a Hummer spokesman, pointed out that the H3 meets or exceeds all federal crash safety standards. "The Insurance Institute tests represent one measurement of crash performance," he said in a statement.
In the side test, the Jeep Liberty, Jeep Wrangler, Dodge Nitro and Kia (KIMTF) Sorento, all 2008 models, were the worst performers. The Liberty, Wrangler and Nitro all received the second-lowest rating "marginal," while the Sorento had the lowest rating of "poor."
Joe Nolan, the Insurance Institute's senior vice president, said in the report that the side impact evaluation revealed some "surprising" results.
"SUVs should have an inherent advantage in such [side] crashes because drivers and passengers ride higher up than in cars. People often think they're safer in an SUV, but many cars perform much better in our side test than some of the SUVs in this group."
The IIHS report noted that the Jeep Wrangler was tested without its optional combination head and torso side airbags. Manufacturers may request a second test with the airbag option at their own expense. But Chrysler, which makes the Wrangler, did not request another test, according to the report.
"We assume that Chrysler doesn't expect the Wrangler to perform much better, even with the optional airbags," Nolan said in the report.
Max Gates, a Chrysler spokesman, said in a statement that the IIHS report contains "unsupported speculation" about the company's reasons for not paying to conduct a second side impact test for the Wrangler.
"In fact, our internal testing indicates there is additional protection provided by side air bags," he said.
The 2009 Nissan (NSANY) Murano received top ratings in all three categories and was named a Top Safety Pick by the Insurance Institute. That means it earned the best possible ratings for front, side and rear impact protection, and it's available with electronic stability control.
Overall SUV safety has been improving over the last few years as manufacturers add safety features like ESC and side airbags, according to the Insurance Institute.
In 2001, only half of the midsize SUVs tested by the IIHS earned "good" ratings in the frontal offset tests. In the latest round of testing, only one vehicle was rated below "good."