Dateline NBC
updated 12/11/2004 4:04:34 AM ET 2004-12-11T09:04:34

This time the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety put to the test two newly redesigned small SUVs -- the 2005 Honda CRV, and the 2005 Ford Escape.

The Institute, a non-profit group sponsored by insurance companies, aims to make cars safer and lower insurance claims. It runs a sled into each car at 35 miles an hour, simulating a direct hit by a pickup truck, or another SUV.

First up is the Honda CR-V. Last tested in 2003, it didn't have side curtain airbags, which protect the driver's and passenger's heads. The Institute rated the CRV "marginal," its second lowest mark.

In new 2005 models, the curtain bags now come standard. Brian O’Neill is president of IIHS.

Brian O'Neill: “Now we have protection for the head of the driver, and for the head of the passenger, which we didn't have before.”

The new Honda CRV with standard side curtain airbags, passes with flying colors, a "good" rating.

Next is the 2005 Ford Escape, also sold as the Mazda Tribute and the Mercury Mariner. Side curtain airbags are an updated option for the Escape, available for an extra $600 in the latest 2005 vehicles. When tested without any side protection in 2003, the Escape ranked "poor." And a former optional side airbag offered good protection for the driver's head, but not the passenger's.

The new optional curtain airbags -- in both front and back -- do better. It's a "good" rating for the Ford Escape.

O'Neill: “The difference between this curtain and not having a curtain can be a matter of life and death. It's worth the money.”

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