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Crash tests raises questions about front-seat safety in some SUVs

A new round of crash tests shows passengers in the front seat of some SUVs involved in serious collisions may not get the same level of protection as drivers.

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety replicated small front-overlap crashes with seven small SUVs that received good ratings after the front driver's side corner of the vehicle hit a barrier at 40 mph. But with this round of tests, the institute crashed the front passenger side of the SUVs

What happened?

Only two models were rated as "good," while one model was rated "poor."

Performance in small, front-overlap tests

Here are the findings, listed in this order: vehicle model, driver's side protection rating, passenger's side protection rating.

2016 Hyundai Tucson: Good, good

2015 Buick Encore: Good, acceptable

2015 Honda CR-V: Good, acceptable

2015 Mazda CX-5: Good, acceptable

2014 Nissan Rogue: Good, marginal

2014 Subaru Forester: Good, marginal

2015 Toyota RAV4: Good, poor

Source: IIHS

"This is an important aspect of occupant protection that needs more attention," said Becky Mueller, a research engineer at the institute. In 2014, more than 1,600 people who were passengers in the front seat of vehicles were killed in accidents. That was just over 13 percent of all in-vehicle fatalities from that year.

Mueller said the difference in protection between drivers and passengers was due in part to some automakers placing a greater emphasis on the vehicle frame and structure for the driver's side of the SUV. That's because front overlap crash tests were introduced in 2012 and focused on what happened when the driver's side corner of the vehicle hit another car or pole.

Still, even in some vehicles with a symmetrical design for the front of the SUV, front overlap crash test results for the driver's side and passenger's side yielded different results.

"Some vehicle structures look the same on both sides, but they don't perform the same," said Mueller.

Toyota, which makes the 2015 RAV4 that received a poor rating, called these new crash tests severe and beyond federal safety standards.

"Looking ahead, we've incorporated enhancements on both the driver's and passenger's side for vehicles built on Toyota's new TNGA platforms, beginning with the 2016 Prius," said Steve Curtis, a Toyota spokesperson.

Spokespersons for Nissan and Subaru, which had small SUVs that earned "marginal" ratings, told CNBC their companies were committed to meeting safety standards and planned to review the institute's findings.

It's likely this new round of crash tests could force automakers to further modify the frame and structures of the front of their vehicles so they better protected passengers from one of the deadliest collisions.

Questions? Comments? BehindTheWheel@cnbc.com.

Correction: This story was revised to correct the spelling of Becky Mueller's first name.