What makes it tough: Almost everything that bears the brunt of the crash 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.
The rankings of tested models 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 pre-emptive note to diffuse the image hit it could take from the Pilot's bad score. 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."
The damage-control note pointed out that Honda's redesigned models get the latest safety structures, but it didn't say when the Pilot would be redesigned.
—By James. R. Healey of USA Today