Two midsize SUVs made by the beleaguered company earned a top industry safety award Tuesday, withstanding a key new crash test better than their competitors. The Chevrolet Equinox and GMC Terrain, structural twins, earned "good" rankings on the small-front overlap test conducted by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.
They were the only two SUVs out of nine tested to earn the "good" ranking. On the other end of the rankings, the Kia Sorento, Mazda CX-9 and Honda Pilot all received "poor" grades.
"SUVs have gotten much safer over the past few generations, but some are better than others at providing comprehensive front crash protection," said IIHS executive vice president David Zuby. "When it comes to midsize SUVs, General Motors is showing the way forward."
The rankings are a bright spot on GM's safety record, which has otherwise been eviscerated in recent weeks, as documents in multiple federal investigations have revealed the company ignored a known safety defect for more than a decade while at least 13 people were killed in related car accidents. Investigations are ongoing.
Both the Equinox and Terrain received "good" marks on all IIHS safety tests, which earned them Top Safety Pick + status, the nonprofit organization's top overall recognition. The Toyota Highlander earned an "acceptable" rating on the small-front overlap test and good marks on all others, which is also enough to earn Top Safety Pick + status. ( Full results here).
IIHS introduced the small-front overlap test two years ago as a means to gauge what happens when the front corner of a vehicle hits another vehicle or object such as a tree or utility pole. In the test, the front quarter of a vehicle strikes these barriers at 40 miles per hour.
The test is particularly important because frontal safety features in many cars are often located toward the center, and the forces in these types of crashes can bypass those features and injure or kill occupants. Up to a quarter of deaths and injuries in frontal crashes are sustained in these sorts of crashes, says IIHS.
Cars have become safer in recent years, as automakers improved structural performance. But they haven't quite caught up with the small-front overlap performance, and the test has quickly become a key measure of differences in safety performance from one vehicle to another.
In a test of smaller SUVs conducted last year, only the Subaru Forester and Mitsubishi Outlander Sport earned "good" rankings, while popular vehicles like the Ford Escape and Toyota RAV4 earned "poor" grades. In January, only 1 of 11 cars in the "mini" car category even earned an "acceptable" grade.
In the case of the Equinox and Terrain, GM made modifications on 2014 models to the front structure and door-hinge pillars. IIHS says these changes helped maintain the cabin's space during the crash test, and that the crash-test dummy's head hit the front airbag and stayed there.
In contrast, the driver's space in the Honda Pilot was "seriously compromised by intruding structure," IIHS wrote, noting the parking brake pedal moved inward by 16.5 inches, and that the dummy's head barely contacted the front airbag before sliding off the left side. Researchers concluded the dummy showed likely injuries to the left hip and possible injuries to the lower legs.
Pete Bigelow is an associate editor at AOL Autos. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org and followed on Twitter @PeterCBigelow.