The 2018 Ford Escape drew the poorest marks in new front passenger-side crash tests involving seven small sport utility models.
In findings released Wednesday, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) gave a "good" rating to the BMW X1; Chevrolet Equinox and its twin, the GMC Terrain; Jeep Compass; and Mitsubishi Outlander. The not-for-profit research group, which works to cut insurers' losses from vehicle accidents, deemed the Mitsubishi Outlander Sport as "marginal" and the Ford Escape as "poor."
While poor is worse than marginal under the IIHS's safety classification system, both ratings are the equivalent of a failing grade, said the group, which is funded by the insurance industry
"The main message out of this is that of the new seven small SUVs, a majority are doing really well, as five of the seven get a good rating, which is our top rating," Becky Mueller, a senior research engineer at IIHS told CBS MoneyWatch.
"The small SUV segment is the most popular in the U.S. People aren't buying small cars like they used to," she added.
The Ford Escape is the manufacturer's second best-selling vehicle behind the F-Series pickup trucks.
In responding to the findings, both Ford and Mitsubishi said that that safety is a priority in the design of their vehicles.
"The Escape has earned the highest 5-star overall NCAP ratings in the U.S., Europe, China and Australia and a 'good' rating in all other IIHS crash test modes," said Ford spokeswoman Elizabeth Weigandt in an email, referring to the group that evaluates cars for safety in Europe. "We expect the new 2020 model also will perform well on this test."
Tim Gilman, a spokesman for Mitsubishi, said the Outlander Sport has performed well on other safety tests. "While the IIHS test results for this small overlap crash test are currently being reviewed, we believe it is important to point out that all of the driver and passenger injury measures for the Outlander Sport in this test were rated 'good.' Only three of the vehicles reviewed in this test can make this claim," he said.
A smaller, less costly version of the Outlander, the Outlander Sport seats five people, compared to the seven seats offered in the Outlander.
The Escape and Outlander Sport had acceptable results for drivers, but marginal and poor ratings on the passenger side. The IIHS tests mimicked crashes in which a quarter of the front of the car encounters an obstacle, such as another car, tree or pole.
"The vehicle structure was not maintained well in a crash, and the airbags and seatbelts didn't keep dummies from hitting structures inside the cars," said Mueller of the two vehicles. In the Ford Escape, researchers found a "high risk of a real person in that crash having a thigh and hip injury," she added.
The new ratings bring to 16 the number of small SUVs evaluated in the passenger-side small overlap front test, which the IIHS began in 2017 to push manufacturers to protect front-seat drivers and passengers.
"Most people focus on the driver and think you're getting the same level of protection on the passenger side," Mueller said. "It's important to let the public know that's not always the case in this type of crash."
More than 40,000 Americans died in motor vehicle crashes in 2017, and another 4.6 million were seriously injured, according to a preliminary estimate from the National Safety Council. Mueller said small overlap crashes account for a quarter of injuries and fatalities in all frontal crashes.
"Frontal crashes are the most common and comprise the largest amount of fatalities on the roadways compared to side and rear and other types of crashes," she said.
Consumers considering buying a new vehicle can find IIHS test results for specific makes, models and categories on its website.
"The good news is cares are getting safer with time, in general," Mueller. "If you just bought a new car, it's safer than the 10-year-old car that you traded in to get this new vehicle."