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Hyundai Santa Fe tops testing group's list of safe small SUVs

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- In low-speed frontal crash tests of small SUVs, the Hyundai Santa Fe was the best performer among 10 models recently tested by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

The Santa Fe earned a "good" rating, as did the Subaru Forester, which was already tested in a previous round. They were the only small SUVs to earn a good rating.

In this latest round of 40-mph crash tests, the Institute, which is wholly funded by insurance companies, added the Santa Fe, Toyota RAV4 and the Ford Escape to the list of recently tested 2001 models.

The Santa Fe was the best performer, with very little damage caused to the occupant compartment. The vehicle's overall crashworthiness was rated "good," as was its performance in the chest and left-leg-and- foot category.

The vehicle earned "average" ratings in the head-and-neck category, but only one rating kept the Santa Fe from being the Institute's "best pick" -- the crash dummy's head was hit hard rebounding from the airbag.

"This wasn't indicative of a serious head injury, but it did prevent the Santa Fe from earning a 'best pick' designation," said Institute President Brian O'Neill.

The Toyota RAV4 showed improvement in the 40- mph crash test. The vehicle was only rated "marginal" when the Institute tested it in 1998, but the redesigned 2001 model is now rated as "acceptable."

According to the Institute, the structural performance improved but the airbag did not protect the dummy's head from hitting the steering wheel and the legs were not well protected in the crash.

Toyota had not received the Institute's final analysis and would not comment on the findings.

The third vehicle tested, the Ford Escape, earned a "marginal" rating. The tests showed "moderate to major" intrusion to the driver's footwell, and the airbag failed to protect the crash dummy's head from hitting the steering wheel.

It was the first time the Institute tested the Escape.

"Overall, this is a disappointing showing," said O'Neill. "The Escape was Ford's joint program with Mazda, and clearly this cooperative effort didn't produce a particularly crashworthy design." Ford responded that the Escape fared well in government crash tests, receiving a five-star rating for the driver and four-star rating for the front passenger.

"We design all of our vehicles, including the Ford Escape, to perform well in real-world safety situations," the company said in a statement. Ford pointed out the Escape was the only small SUV to earn an acceptable rating in the Institute's low-speed crash test.

Ford said it was "disappointed" with the marginal rating. "We will review the results and decide if any changes are appropriate. We urge customers to take into account all information available to them when making their buying decisions and to always wear a properly buckled safety belt," the company statement said.

A vehicle's crashworthiness is based on a 40- mph "frontal offset" crash into a stationary barrier. The Institute measures the crush zone between the front and how well the safety cage protects a driver's space by examining damage to the crash test dummy and the slow-motion film to assess the performance of the vehicle restraint system.

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Insurance Institute for Highway Safety
National Highway Traffic Safety Administration

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4:30pm ET, 4/16

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