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General Motors' aging Chevrolet Equinox and GMC Terrain SUVs won top ratings in the most-recent crash tests of SUVs by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. Honda Pilot was in the bottom slot.

Both the GM models were awarded the trade group's highest rank, Top Safety Pick +. The "+" means a vehicle not only scored well on other IIHS crash tests, but also held up well in the relatively new – and remarkably punishing – "small overlap" test.

Toyota's redesigned Highlander scored lower overall than the GM models, but high enough to also earn a Top Safety Pick + rating, IIHS had announced in December.

Pilot has "good" ratings -- highest that IIHS gives -- in other crash-test categories, but got the lowest-possible "poor" in the "small overlap" test.

"When it comes to midsize SUVs, General Motors is showing the way forward," IIHS said in its summary of the most recent tests.

Equinox first went on sale in 2004 as a 2005 model. The similar GMC Terrain went on sale in 2009 as a 2010 model.

IIHS says the Equinox and Terrain received "modifications on 2014 models to their front structure and door-hinge pillars." The changes were able to minimize crash forces that reached the passenger compartment in the bedeviling "small-overlap" test that the IIHS added to its suite of crashes a little more than a year ago.

It slams 25% of the vehicle's width, on the driver's side, head-on into a five-foot-tall immovable barrier at 40 mph. It's meant to duplicate crashes where a small portion of the driver's side hits a pole or tree or other obstruction.

What makes it tough: Almost everything that bears the brunt of the crash in that test is outboard of the vehicle's main structure, where energy-absorbing beams and other components normally would lessen the blow to the driver.

IIHS says that "a quarter of the serious injuries and deaths occurring in frontal crashes are in small overlap impacts where just the front corner of a vehicle clips the front of an oncoming car or strikes a tree or pole."

Even in the best-scoring models, that left front portion of the vehicle is shoved back to the dashboard and mangled so badly it's unrecognizable. But in the top models, the major damage stops at the passenger compartment, and airbags cushion the blow to drivers.

In the worst models, the front end of the vehicle is shoved well back into the passenger compartment, overcoming any help the driver might get from the airbags.

The rankings of recently tested 2014 SUVs in the "small overlap" test, from best to worst:

- Chevrolet Equinox/GMC Terrain

- Toyota Highlander

- Jeep Grand

- Toyota 4Runner

- Ford Explorer

- Kia Sorento

- Mazda CX-9

- Honda Pilot

Honda, which usually is able to brag about its crash-test scores, sent a note to diffuse the image hit it could take from the Pilot's bad score in the "small offset" test. Honda says it "leads the industry in third-party crash test ratings with more vehicles rated Top Safety Pick and Top Safety Pick + by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) than any other manufacturer."

Honda's note pointed out that the automaker's redesigned models get the latest safety structures and wind up with the "+" rating, but it didn't say when the Pilot would be redesigned.

A number of SUVs with "good" rankings on other IIHS tests haven't been subjected to the "small overlap" crash, so aren't eligible for the Top Safety Pick + rating.

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