But new technology is helping to level the playing field, reports CBS News transportation correspondent Nancy Cordes.
"SUVs haven't always been the best choice for safety, and they still have a higher risk of rollover than cars, but our study shows that SUVs are becoming safer," said Anne McCartt, senior vice president for research of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.
The overall death rate has gone down 30 percent in the past 10 years. One reason has been the addition of electronic stability control, now standard on many vehicles. It helps steer on slippery or tricky roads.
"ESC does save lives," McCartt said.
General Motors Corp. vehicles had the highest and lowest driver death rates from 2002 through 2005, according to the study by the insurance industry.
Two-door, two-wheel drive Chevrolet Blazers built from 2001 to 2004 had the highest rate of 232 driver deaths per million registered vehicles during the four-year span, the IIHS found.
By contrast, the Chevrolet Astro minivan had the lowest rate with only seven deaths per million registered vehicles. It was followed by the Infiniti G35, BMW 7 Series and the Toyota 4Runner.
"You do see that the bigger, heavier vehicles tend to be safer," said McCartt.
The two-door Acura RSX had the second-highest rate with 202 driver deaths followed by the Nissan 350Z, which registered 193 deaths.
"Among the vehicles with the highest death rates, many are older designs. And older designs are not as crashworthy," said McCartt.
Automakers said the study was limited in its scope because it did not include factors which could play a major role in the fatalities.
"The study doesn't really take into account driver behavior or how the vehicles are used so it's difficult to really draw much significance," said GM spokesman Alan Adler.
The Astro and Blazer went out of production in 2005. GM currently sells the Chevy TrailBlazer midsize SUV.
Nissan said all of its vehicles "are engineered to meet or exceed government safety regulations as well as our own rigorous internal safety requirements, and the 350Z is no exception."
The automaker said it urges "everyone driving a Nissan or Infiniti vehicle to do so safely."
Chris Naughton, a Honda Motor Co. spokesman, said the company, which makes the Acura RSX, has "long striven to build very safe vehicles with a long list of safety features." He noted the sports coupe typically had younger buyers, which could have contributed to its ranking.
The study also reaffirmed past research which found that heavier vehicles in categories such as cars, SUVs and pickups generally had lower death rates.
The study of 202 passenger vehicle models included rates of driver deaths in all crashes plus rates in multiple-vehicle, single-vehicle, and single-vehicle rollover crashes.
The rate represented the reported number of driver deaths divided by the model's number of registered years, according to data from the federal government's Fatality Analysis Reporting System and registration counts from The Polk Company, a Michigan-based provider of automotive information.