Honda, Subaru, Volvo fare well in safety test

(MoneyWatch) Tough safety standards have made modern cars better able to protect occupants in a crash. But a new crash test rolled out by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety has made it harder for automakers to win a top safety ranking. However, Honda, Subaru and Volvo did especially well in the new test.

The "frontal small overlap" test which approximates just 25 percent of the vehicle front hitting another car, a tree or a pole, was especially tough for compact crossover SUVs. Of the 13 2013 and 2014 models tested, only the 2014 Subaru Forester got the top "good" rating. The Mitsubishi Outlander Sport got the second-level "acceptable" rating. Several other popular crossovers -- including the Ford Escape, BMW X1 and Hyundai Tucson -- got marginal or poor ratings. The Honda CR-V also got a marginal rating -- Honda's only poor performance on this test.

The IIHS, a research organization funded by the insurance industry, started the new test because it discovered that 2,500 people a year were dying in such crashes in the U.S. These small overlap collisions bypass the crash protection structures built into the car that give greater protection in a full head-on crash. Small overlap crashes also can make air bag protection less effective for the driver.

Along with the new test, IIHS instituted a new top safety rating called "Top Safety Pick +." To get that rating, a model must have a good rating in four of the institute's five crash tests and no less than acceptable in the fifth. In addition to the small overlap test, the others are moderate overlap frontal crash, side crash, roof strength in rollovers and head restraint effectiveness.

Honda and Subaru each had three vehicles awarded the best rating. Volvo, long with a reputation for safety, got the "Top Safety Pick +" rating for both vehicles tested -- the S60 sedan and the XC60 SUV. Overall, small and midsize cars fared better than small SUVs.

Here is a rundown by category of vehicles with the Top Safety Pick + ranking:

Compact Cars: Dodge Dart, Ford Focus four-door, Honda Civic (two and four-door models), Hyundai Elantra, Scion tC.

Midsize cars: Chrysler 200, Dodge Avenger, Ford Fusion, Honda Accord (two and four-door models), Kia Optima, Mazda 6, Nissan Altima, Subaru Legacy, Suzuki Kizashi, Volkswagen Passat.

Luxury midsize cars: Acura TL, Lincoln MKZ, Volvo S60.

Small Crossover SUVs: Mitsubishi Outlander Sport, Subaru Forester

Mid-size and luxury SUVs: Mitsubishi Outlander, Volvo XC60.

Minivans: Honda Odyssey

Wagons: Subaru Outback

You will see cars not on this list being advertised as a Top Safety Pick. That means they got the top "good" rating in frontal, side, rear and head restraint tests but did not fare as well in the new frontal small overlap test. But for maximum protection in all kinds of crashes, look for the "Top Safety Pick +" rating.

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    Jerry Edgerton, author of Car Shopping Made Easy, has been covering the car beat since Detroit companies dominated the U.S. market. The former car columnist for Money magazine and Washington correspondent for Business Week, Edgerton specializes in finding the best deals on wheels and offering advice on making your car last.

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