WASHINGTON (AP) – Some sport utility vehicles don’t provide the protection in a side crash that one might expect from such large vehicles, according to tests released today by the insurance industry.

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety gave marginal scores in side-impact tests of 2008 versions of the Chevrolet TrailBlazer, Jeep Grand Cherokee and two SUVs built by Nissan Motor Co. – the Pathfinder and Xterra without optional side air bags.

In similar side testing, the Toyota 4Runner and Pathfinder and Xterra models equipped with side air bags received top marks of good in the side testing. The Ford Explorer and Mercury Mountaineer received the second-highest rating of acceptable.

“The performance of some of these models in the side test was surprising,” said David Zuby, the institute’s senior vice president. “SUVS should have an advantage in side crashes because the driver and passengers ride higher up than in cars.”

“People often think they’re safer in one of these vehicles, but many cars hold up better than some of these midsize SUVs in this test,” he said.

In the institute’s side test, vehicles are struck with a barrier moving at 31 mph to reflect the force of a pickup or sport utility vehicle hitting the vehicle.

The TrailBlazer and Grand Cherokee, built by General Motors Corp. and Chrysler LLC, respectively, lack air bags that protect the chests and abdomens of front-seat occupants. The combination of weak side structures and the lack of chest protection led to high forces on the driver dummies’ chests and abdomens, Zuby said.

Company officials noted the TrailBlazer, Grand Cherokee and the Nissan SUVs received top scores in the government’s side crash tests.

In frontal testing, all of the SUVs received the top score of good except the TrailBlazer, which improved to receive the second-highest rating of acceptable. Previous versions of the SUV had been rated marginal.

Ratings for the TrailBlazer also apply to the GMC Envoy, Isuzu Ascender and Saab 9-7X.

In rear crash testing, only the Grand Cherokee received the top rating of good. The Nissan Pathfinder was rated marginal while the remaining SUVs received the lowest score of poor.

GM spokesman Alan Adler said the TrailBlazer “meets or exceeds all federal motor vehicle safety standards and was the first midsize SUV to offer rollover-capable head curtain air bags.” The air bags are standard on the 2008 TrailBlazer.

Chrysler spokesman Max Gates said the Grand Cherokee has performed well in internal and external testing and “no single test can determine a vehicle’s overall safety performance.”

Nissan said in a statement that “while air bag systems, including side-curtain air bags which are either standard or optional on many of our vehicles, have been shown to mitigate the risk of injury, Nissan believes that seat belts and vehicle structure help provide the primary protection in crashes.”

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