Of 13 mid-size cars tested by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, only two earned good ratings, reports CBS News Correspondent Bob Orr.
The 2004 Honda Accord and the new Toyota Camry both protected crash dummies from serious injuries, but only when the cars were equipped with side air bags.
"The dummies, or the people, who are inside this vehicle in a crash this severe would have some injuries, but this would be the difference between life and death," says Adrian Lund of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.
Without air bags, both the Camry and Accord faired poorly when struck in the side by a sled, which was used to simulate an SUV.
A video of two Honda Accords – one equipped with side air bags, and one without – shows the side windows on car lacking airbags shattering and scattering glass on the dummy inside. The dummy body was thrown roughly, while the dummy in the car with airbags was shielded from the glass and the impact buffered by the inflatable bags.
Overall, ten of the 13 cars tested were rated poor. In addition to the Accord and Camry without airbags, the Mitsubishi Galant, Hyundai Sonata, and Nissan Altima all earned poor marks.
So, too, did the Dodge Stratus, Mazda 6, the Suzuki Verona, Chevrolet Malibu and Saturn L Series.
The Malibu -- when outfitted with side air bags -- earned an acceptable rating, but the Saturn, even with its standard equipment side airbags failed the test.
Video of a crash test shows the side air curtain on the Saturn did not protect the head of the short dummy.
Overall, cars with side airbags are safer, but side impact collisions between cars and SUVs remain among the most deadly.
And with more SUVs now on the road, there is no absolute protection against the risk.