The new ’08 Ford Taurus X cross/utility vehicle, formerly known as the Freestyle, receives a Top Safety Pick rating from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

The CUV earned top marks in the testing of front-, side- and rear-impact crash protection, Ford says. It also has received a 5-star crash-test rating from the National Highway Traffic Safety Admin.

The former Freestyle bragged top safety rankings as well, although it was slightly lighter than the Taurus X 3,959 lbs. (1,796 kg) vs. 4,033 lbs. (1,829 kg) due to its smaller 3.0L V-6 vs. the Taurus X’s 3.5L V-6. The Freestyle came with a continuously variable transmission, while the Taurus X has a 6-speed automatic.

Taurus X stablemates, the ’08 Taurus and Mercury Sable sedans, also garnered top safety rankings when they were tested earlier this year.

The safety designations are the focal point of the auto maker’s nationwide advertising blitz of the three re-branded vehicles.

Ford officials are hoping the name changes – the Taurus previously was the Five Hundred and the Mercury Sable was the Montego – will help spark sales of the trio, produced at the auto maker’s Chicago assembly plant.

The former Five Hundred was the first vehicle ever to receive the IIHS’ Top Safety Pick rating, a Ford spokesman says. “That was a timing thing,” he tells Ward's. “Before that, (IIHS published) individual crash-test ratings but had no overall ranking.”

Unfortunately, the Five Hundred’s elite status didn’t last long, as shortly after it was stripped of the honor when the IIHS changed its requirements to include electronic stability control.

To regain the top ratings, Ford offers ESC as an option on the new Taurus and Sable. The Taurus X gets ESC standard. Optional vs. standard equipment doesn’t affect IIHS rankings, the spokesman says, as all crash tests are performed while the car is stationary.

“If you ace all of (IIHS) crash tests, and you have (ESC) available, you get top safety pick,” he says. “It’s kind of a moot point, because (test personnel) are not actually driving those vehicles. It’s simply a box you check. It’s part of the requirement.”

bpope@wardsauto.com