The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety says its latest round of testing shows smaller SUVs hold up better in crashes, as auto makers continue to pour more standard safety items into a segment becoming more popular with consumers.

Top safety picks from the Institute’s sample of eight small SUVs include the ’09 Ford Escape and Escape Hybrid, Mercury Mariner and Mazda Tribute platform mates. The ’08 Mitsubishi Outlander, ’08 Nissan Rogue and ’09 Volkswagen Tiguan also earn good ratings in evaluations for frontal, side and rear crashworthiness.

All of the vehicles are equipped with standard electronic stability control and side airbags, but the IIHS President Adrian Lund singles out the Tiguan and the Escape.

“(The Tiguan) sailed through the front- and side- crash tests without a single downgrade for structure or measures of injury likelihood recorded on the dummy,” Lund says in a statement.

The Arlington, VA-based group cites the Escape’s modified-for-’09 frontal airbags and seatbelts, as well as structural changes to improve occupant protection in frontal crashes. The Escape improves from acceptable to good in the group’s frontal offset crash test and a new seat design improves its rear crashworthiness from acceptable to good.

“We’ve devoted many hours to analyzing and improving the body structure, seatbelts and airbags of the Escape and Mariner for better performance in front- and side-impact crashes,” says Steve Kozak, chief engineer-safety systems at Ford, in a statement. “We’ve taken our compact SUVs to the next level of safety.”

The Saturn Vue from General Motors Corp. and the Toyota Highlander from Toyota Motor Corp. received good ratings from the IIHS earlier this year.

But GM’s ’08 Chevrolet Equinox did not fare so well this time, according to the IIHS. As with Chrysler LLC’s Jeep Wrangler, the Equinox and its Pontiac Torrent platform mate do not offer standard side airbags. Both received poor ratings.

When auto makers offer side airbags as optional equipment, the IIHS tests without them because it says that is how most vehicles will be sold. The group offers auto makers a second test with the optional side airbags if they provide the vehicle. GM chose not to do so, the IIHS says.

“We have to assume it means GM didn’t expect (the Equinox) to perform much better, even with the option,” Lund says.

GM says in a statement the Equinox and Torrent have performed well in other tests.

“The Chevrolet Equinox and Pontiac Torrent meet or exceed all federal safety standards and have performed very well in other consumer information tests,” says Carolyn Markey, manager-policy and Washington communications at GM.

Markey notes for the ’09 model year, the Equinox and Torrent received the highest rating of five stars for both the driver and front passenger in testing by the National Highway Traffic Safety Admin.

“Each GM vehicle is engineered and tested to help provide protection in more than 150 types of collisions,” she says. “The IIHS side-crash test is a single and very severe test.”

GM adds standard head curtain side-impact airbags to the Equinox and Torrent in the ’09-model year. IIHS says it will retest the Equinox later this year.

Results were worse for the ’08 Jeep Wrangler, which last year did not offer side airbags and made them optional for the current model year. Its rating moved down from marginal because a door opened during impact.

“Most vehicles are being improved,” Lund says. “We’ve rarely seen a vehicle go in the wrong direction and get a worse rating after it has been redesigned.”

Chrysler did not request a second test for the Wrangler but did ask that its Jeep Patriot platform mate be given a second round of tests. The Patriot receives standard curtain airbags, but Chrysler makes optional additional torso airbags meant to protect an occupant’s chest and abdomen. The Patriot’s score improved to marginal from poor.

The IIHS says the Suzuki Grand Vitara from Suzuki Motor Corp. scored marginal and also could withstand improvements in crashworthiness. But overall, the group says safety of the small SUV improved with the addition of standard side airbags and stability control.

Auto makers must make stability control standard on all light vehicles under 10,000 lbs. (4,537 kg) by the ’12 model year.

Small SUV crash ratings from the IIHS arrive as more consumers flock to the segment for its improved fuel economy vs. midsize and fullsize models.

Ward’s classifies the small SUVs tested by IIHS as cross/utility vehicles, with the exception of the Wrangler.