The Ford Escape received the worst score yet among small SUVs in the IIHS small overlap test.

Ford Motor Co. is setting sales records with its broad SUV fleet, but a new report from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety could lead potential buyers to question the benefits of one of the maker’s most popular ute offerings.

The compact Ford Escape was the only of seven small SUVs to receive a “Poor” rating in the latest IIHS test for occupant protection, though the Mitsubishi Outlander Sport managed an only slightly better “Marginal” rating in the small overlap front crash test – which is designed to simulate what happens when a vehicle clips a pole, a tree or the corner of an oncoming vehicle.

Ford’s shortfall reflects a curious decision made with the update of the 2017 model-year, according to officials with the insurance trade group. The automaker upgraded the driver’s side of the Escape, which passed the small overlap test. But not the passenger side which was badly compromised and likely would have resulted in serious injuries if a human, rather than a crash dummy, was in the seat.

“Manufacturers shouldn’t shortchange protection for front seat passengers,” said Becky Mueller, a senior research engineer with the Institute who helped develop the passenger-side small overlap front test.

Escape's front door pillars seriously intruded on the passenger side and its side airbag didn't deploy.

Ford officials responded by declaring that safety is “one of the highest priorities” for the company. A spokesman also noted that the compact SUV received a five-star rating from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s own crash measurements – which do not include the small overlap test. In the rest of the IIHS crash tests, meanwhile, Escape also ranked “Good.”

Automakers have markedly beefed up their vehicles to pass the front overlap test which, the IIHS contends, reflects what happens in a large number of real-world crashes resulting in injuries and occupant fatalities. The Escape suffered from severe intrusion, meaning parts of the front pillar pushed into the front passenger’s space compared to what happened in a test of a driver’s side crash. Worse, the side-curtain airbags on the Escape didn’t deploy in the test.

The side airbags didn’t trigger on the Mitsubishi Outlander Sport, either, the key reason that ute received a “Marginal” rating which, in IIHS terms, means it failed the test.

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Mitsubishi's Outlander Sport was rated "Marginal," because its side airbag also failed to deploy.

“That’s not something we expect to see after so many years of crash testing,” Mueller said. “Side curtain airbags should deploy in crashes like this.”

Failing a safety test like this one is perhaps even more problematic for Mitsubishi. The long-struggling automaker has been hoping to regain traction, after years of decline, with products like the Outlander Sport. The poor showing could turn potential buyers off.

On the other hand, five other small SUVs newly tested by the IIHS passed the twin front overlap crashes with “Acceptable” ratings.” The IIHS previously tested nine other 2018 models and found that only two, the Honda CR-V and Mazda CX-5 performed well enough for a “Good” rating.

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The five 2018 models to pass the latest round of testing were:

  • The BMW X1;
  • The Chevrolet Equinox;
  • The BMW X1 was one of five other small SUVs to receive an IIHS "Acceptable" rating.

    The GMC Terrain;

  • The Jeep Compass; and
  • The Mitsubishi Outlander.

The Outlander is a larger version of the Outlander Sport and avoided the problems that earned the smaller model a failing grade.

Ford’s poor performance took a number of analysts by surprise, especially since the automaker consciously set out to address earlier safety compromises with the 2017 update to the popular compact ute. Ford officials noted during a Tuesday sales call with journalists that a complete replacement for the Escape is currently under development. It is expected to debut during the 2020 model-year.

(US auto sales post an early spring rebound. Click Here for more on March numbers.)

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