• Image Credit: IIHS

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety is one of two highly regarded sources for crash safety. The other one is the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Some automakers privately express issues with the IIHS as a source, citing the fact that it is essentially a lobbying group for the insurance industry. That might suggest its ratings could be influenced by the desire to boost cars whose replacement costs for parts and the whole vehicle are lower than others.

The IIHS does not rate sports cars, but it covers every other segment of the industry. AOL Autos recommends consulting both the IIHS ratings and the NHTSA ratings to get the most complete picture possible for a given model's safety ratings.

Car buyers must also pay attention to how each agency rates models. Some earning "Top Pick" status only get that top rating when equipped with certain optional safety features.

To determine crashworthiness — how well a vehicle protects its occupants in a crash — the IIHS rates vehicles good, acceptable, marginal, or poor based on performance in high-speed front and side crash tests, a rollover test, plus evaluations of seat/head restraints for protection against neck injuries in rear impacts.

To earn Top Safety Pick for 2012 a vehicle must have good ratings in all four Institute tests.

Large Pickup: Ford F-150 Crew Cab
  • Image Credit: Ford

Large Pickup: Ford F-150 Crew Cab

MSRP: $22,990 - $51,995
Fuel Economy: 17 mpg City / 23 mpg HWY

One would think that all full-size pickup trucks would be top safety picks, but that is not the case. And there are some surprises here. The Honda Ridgeline, not a full-size truck really, makes the grade along with the Toyota Tundra.

But only the crew-cab version of the Ford F150 makes the list among the domestic trucks. Chevy Silverado and Dodge Ram don't earn Top-Pick status.

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Minivan: Chrysler Town & Country
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Minivan: Chrysler Town & Country

MSRP: $29,995 - $38,995
Fuel Economy: 17 mpg City / 25 mpg HWY

Chrysler is the category leader in minivans, and is not surprisingly a Top Safety pick. Rivals Honda Odyssey and Toyota Sienna also earn Top Pick laurels.

The Volkswagen Routan, a VW version of the Chrysler minivan, makes the list, of course. The only minivan that didn't score Top Pick status is the Kia Sedona.

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Large SUV: Buick Enclave
  • Image Credit: GM

Large SUV: Buick Enclave

MSRP: $36,600 - $45,080
Fuel Economy: 17 mpg City / 24 mpg HWY

The Enclave has been a big driver of Buick sales. The once moribund premium brand at General Motors is now one of the fastest growing thanks to the popularity of this well turned-out large crossover.

The GMC Acadia, also built by GM and the VW Touareg also make the Top Pick list. Check out the IIHS site to see the full list of large SUVs that earned Top Pick.

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Midsize Luxury SUV: Cadillac SRX
  • Image Credit: GM

Midsize Luxury SUV: Cadillac SRX

MSRP: $35,185 - $48,785
Fuel Economy: 17 mpg City / 24 mpg HWY

The new Cadillac SRX is not as brawny as the previous design, but still tough and well-designed enough to make the safety grade.

The category standard bearer, Lexus RX, is also a Top Pick, as is the Mercedes M Class. Only a few luxury SUVs don't make the list, such as Land Rovers. Check out the IIHS site to find out which ones and why.

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Midsize SUV: Toyota Highlander
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Midsize SUV: Toyota Highlander

MSRP: $28,090 - $37,045
Fuel Economy: 20 mpg City / 25 mpg HWY

The Toyota Highlander is among the models earning Top Pick status in one of the most competitive categories in the market. Lots of families buy these models rather than minivans, so safety is a prime consideration.

Chevy Equinox and Ford Flex are also among the Top Picks.

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Small SUV: Volkswagen Tiguan
  • Image Credit: VW

Small SUV: Volkswagen Tiguan

MSRP: $22,840 - $35,930
Fuel Economy: 18 mpg City / 26 mpg HWY

Small SUVs and crossovers will be one of the fastest growing categories in the industry over the next five years, attracting new families who opt to have just one or two children, as well as being a favorite among empty nesters.

The Volkswagen Tiguan is among the IIHS's Top Picks. The Hyundai Tucson and Jeep Patriot equipped with optional torso protection airbags also make the list.

This category is a good example of one where buyers need to check the IIHS list to make sure they are buying the vehicle equipped the way the IIHS indicates to earn the Top Pick laurel.

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Large Family Car: Buick LaCrosse
  • Image Credit: GM

Large Family Car: Buick LaCrosse

MSRP: $29,960 - $38,270
Fuel Economy: 25 mpg City / 36 mpg HWY

One might think that almost any large family car would be designed to earn a Top Pick. Not so.

While the Buick LaCrosse, Chrysler 300 and Toyota Avalon earn the Top Pick status, Chevy Impala and Hyundai Azera do not.

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Midsize Luxury Car: Lincoln MKZ
  • Image Credit: Ford

Midsize Luxury Car: Lincoln MKZ

MSRP: $34,755 - $36,645
Fuel Economy: 18 mpg City / 27 mpg HWY

Among mid-sized luxury cars, Lincoln MKZ, Volvo S60 and Audi A4 are among the Top Picks to look for.

This category is also showing a lot of growth as income challenged luxe car buyers have been trading down without leaving the luxury brand all together.

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Midsize Moderately Priced Car: Subaru Outback
  • Image Credit: Subaru

Midsize Moderately Priced Car: Subaru Outback

MSRP: $23,295 - $31,695
Fuel Economy: 19 mpg City / 27 mpg HWY

Another hugely competitive category, the biggest car category in the industry. Among the Top Picks are Honda Accord, Toyota Camry, Subaru Outback and the all new Buick Verano.

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Small Car: Chevrolet Cruze
  • Image Credit: GM

Small Car: Chevrolet Cruze

MSRP: $16,720 - $23,110
Fuel Economy: 25 mpg City / 36 mpg HWY

Small cars strike some buyers as being less safe than bigger cars, but that is mostly perception in the passenger car categories.

Among the Top Picks among small cars are Chevy Cruze, Honda Civic, Chevy Sonic, Ford Focus, Kia Soul and MINI Countryman.

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Mini Car: Ford Fiesta
  • Image Credit: Ford

Mini Car: Ford Fiesta

MSRP: $13,200 - $17,500
Fuel Economy: 29 mpg City / 38 mpg HWY

The smaller the car the less safe? That is overly simplistic. IIHS puts small cars through the same tests as big cars.

Among the so-called mini cars earning Top Picks are Ford Fiesta, Fiat 500 and Honda Fit.

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