Honda, Subaru and Volvo are making strides protecting the occupants of their cars, while big manufacturers such as General Motors are lagging behind, the Insurance Institute of Highway Safety said Thursday as it gave 22 vehicles its top safety rating.
Between its Honda and Acura lines, Honda landed six of the top spots.
To earn the "Top Safety Pick Plus" endorsement, vehicles had to rate as good on four crash tests and have good or acceptable performance on a small overlap crash -- where the front corner of a car hits an object. The vehicles also must have at least an optional forward collision warning feature that alerts drivers to the possibility of running into another car.
The requirements are stiffer than in previous years and are likely to get even harder as the institute works to make the collision warning standard on all cars.
"We want to show consumers which high-tech features are worth the money and encourage manufacturers to make them more widely available," said Russ Rader, a spokesman for the Insurance Institute of Highway Safety. "We intend to raise the bar higher."
Already, the forward collision warning is reducing vehicle-to-vehicle crashes by about 7%, according to insurance industry data. When it includes an automatic braking system, crash reduction more than doubles to 15%.
Rear-end crashes account for nearly a third of the more than 5 million accidents that occur annually in the United States, according to the institute. Rear-end collisions represent 6% of fatal crashes and 31% of injury crashes.
The organization is considering adding adaptive headlights, which turn with the steering wheel to better illuminate the road in front of the vehicle, to its criteria.
"By looking at insurance claims data, we can see which of these systems reduces crashes in the real world," Rader said.
Honda has become an innovator, incorporating the latest technology into many of its vehicles and redesigning cars to better meet crash tests and protect occupants, Rader said.
"Our commitment to offer advanced safety technologies on mainstream products continues to pay dividends to Honda and Acura customers," said Art St. Cyr, Honda's U.S. vice president of product planning and logistics.
Honda placed its Civic hybrid, both the two-door and four-door Accord sedan, its Odyssey minivan and Acura's RLX and MDX on the list.
Subaru's Legacy, Outback and Forester received the top rating as did Volvo's S60, S80 and XC60. Mazda planted its Mazda3, Mazda6 and CX-5 in the highest ranking. Ford had two vehicles, the Fusion and the Lincoln MKZ. Toyota also had two, the Prius, as long as it was built after November, and the Toyota Highlander. Other top-ranked vehicles included the Infiniti Q50, the Mitsubishi Outlander and the Mercedes-Benz M-Class.
Additionally, the Insurance Institute of Highway Safety gave another 17 vehicles a secondary "Top Safety Pick" rating. They were rated a notch below because the models didn't have a forward collision warning system as at least an option.
The number of vehicles earning the "Top Safety Pick" rating fell by 130 models from last year as the insurance institute raised criteria. There are now 139 models -- the bulk of the market -- without any safety endorsement from the institute.
Some of the largest manufacturers have lagged behind in adding active safety systems, such as collision warning and adaptive headlights.
General Motors, for example, placed only its Chevrolet Spark, a small car that accounts for a tiny fraction of the nation's largest automaker's sales, on the "Top Safety Pick" list and had no cars on the "Top Safety Pick Plus" list. Volkswagen, one of the world's largest automakers, had only its Passat on the secondary list. Three of the biggest luxury brands in the United States -- BMW, Cadillac and Lexus -- failed to get any vehicles in the ratings.
Automakers take the ratings seriously because they can use good results in their marketing. Poor results can damage a car's reputation.
Consumer Reports, for example, dropped the Toyota Camry from its recommended list after the car fared poorly in the small overlap test. Toyota rushed a redesign of the vehicle and had it retested. Camrys built starting this month now have an acceptable rating.
Based on the Camry's performance in the latest test, Consumer Reports said it will be reinstating the vehicle's recommended label.
The Insurance Institute of Highway Safety spends about $3 million a year crashing cars. Its top picks are based on the results of 2014 model year car tests as well as 2013 models in instances where the vehicle was not dramatically redesigned for the current year.
The insurance industry ratings demonstrate how the rapid evolution of automotive technology is improving vehicle safety, said Karl Brauer, an analyst at car shopping website Kelley Blue Book.