The 2014 Acura MDX was one of 22 models to earn Top Saf... The 2014 Acura MDX was one of 22 models to earn Top Safety Pick+ status from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety this week. (Photo courtesy IIHS).
The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety conducts some of the toughest crash tests in the auto industry. This year, it was harder than ever for automakers to win the nonprofit group's top safety awards.

IIHS raised its standards for awarding the Top Safety Pick+ designation, its highest honor. In addition to passing a gamut of crash tests with "good" or better rankings, cars seeking the group's top status now must carry crash-prevention technology or offer it as an option.

"We've made it more difficult for manufacturers this year," said Adrian Lund, president of IIHS.

He said the organization wanted to help distinguish between automakers who not only offered crash mitigation, but those that help drivers avoid accidents in the first place. Twenty-two models achieved the highest status, IIHS said early Thursday.

Four vehicles stood out for offering crash-prevention technology as standard equipment: The Volvo S60, S80 and XC60, as well as the Honda Civic Hybrid. The rest of the 22 models earned the honor only when equipped with optional crash-prevention systems.

Honda was a standout among the automakers with six Top Safety Pick+ awards, including its popular Accord and Civic sedans, Odyssey minivan and Acura RLX and MDX luxury cars. Four Subaru models earned top honors, while Volvo and Mazda each had three winners.

(Here's a link to the complete list of Pick+ winners, and more details on IIHS' methodology).

Among the domestic manufacturers, the Ford Fusion and Lincoln MKZ earned "plus" status, but Chrysler and General Motors vehicles were notably absent among the list of safest cars.

"Consumers who want both crash prevention technology and the latest in occupant protection have a fair number of vehicles to choose from," Lund said. "We hope manufacturers will continue to incorporate front crash prevention, developing more robust systems and adding them to more trim levels, or better yet, making them standard equipment."

IIHS had already tightened its crash-testing criteria last year, adding an additional crash test that specifically measured how occupants fared when a vehicle's front end strikes a barrier at 40 miles per hour. The test replicates what happens in the real world when the front corner of a vehicle collides with another vehicle or stationary object, the sort of accident responsible for nearly a quarter of traffic fatalities.

When that test, known as the small-front overlap test, was introduced, some popular models took hits in the rankings. For example, the Toyota Camry, the country's most popular sedan, earned a poor grade on the new test last year.

The poor rating prompted Consumer Reports to omit the Camry from its recommended list. But the '14 model has earned an "acceptable" score on the test, which helped the vehicle regroup and earn the second-tier "Top Safety Pick" status this year.

Overall, 17 cars earned the second-tier "Top Safety Pick" status.

Pete Bigelow is an associate editor at AOL Autos. He can be reached via email at peter.bigelow@teamaol.com and followed on Twitter @PeterCBigelow.


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