Small to midsize SUV's are becoming increasingly popular as people downgrade to more efficient vehicles, but for many, making the switch to a smaller vehicle can add to concerns over safety. The latest round of crash tests conducted by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) shows that small SUVs have experienced a marked improvement in safety levels in recent years, with four out of the six vehicles tested earning top marks.

The 2009 Ford Escape (and its cross-company siblings in the form of the Mercury Mariner and the Mazda Tribute) earned the IIHS's highest marks for front, side and rear impact crashes, while the 2008 Mitsubishi Outlander, 2008 Nissan Rogue and the 2009 Volkswagen Tiguan also managed to earn top marks in the tests.

One of the main reasons for the improvement was the inclusion of electronic stability control fitted as standard. Adrian Lund, the Institute’s president, said the Escape, Tiguan, Outlander and Rogue were all equipped with standard electronic stability control and that this helped the vehicles show improvements across the board, including in the side tests.

The stability system will be required on all vehicles by 2012, but many manufacturers are implementing the technology now to bolster safety ratings, especially from crash testing organizations who only issue five-star ratings if electronic stability control is present.

Other models were a cause for concern to the IIHS, however. This was especially the case with the 2008 Jeep Wrangler, which had scored lower than the outgoing model despite being redesigned. The driver’s door even opened during one of the tests. The 2008 Chevrolet Equinox and Pontiac Torrent, meanwhile, scored the second-lowest rating in the side test because they weren’t equipped with optional side air bags.