For years, many drivers around the country have had a conviction that when it comes to vehicle safety, that SUVs were the overriding wheels of choice and further, the bigger the SUV the better.

"It isn't for me, it's for the kids," one spouse would coyly intimate to the other, "It's for the kids, their safety you know ..." Not to mention (literally) that size also does seem to count when showing off the new high iron to the girls at the country club or the guys at the bowling alley.

Well, Mom and Dad, sorry to brake a flat spot on your wheels-within-wheels choices, but safety experts insist that SUVs are not safer vehicles at all. Sort of the bigger they are, the harder they fail.

SUVs IN TRANSITION

Since the days when all sport utility vehicles were built body-on-frame, SUVs have been considered "trucks." Even though many have gone to "crossover" car uni-bodies, they still don't have to meet all of the federal government's rules for passenger car safety. Their high centers of gravity have led to a grisly, increasing epidemic of fatal rollover crashes, their rear blind spots have resulted in scores of small children being backed over, and their uber-tank gross weights and dimensions cause carnage to both the SUV occupants and even more often, those in smaller, lighter vehicles. For details on the findings from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, visit their Web sites, nhtsa.dot.gov and iihs.org. Those sites also provide info on the extra costs SUV owners are paying in fuel, insurance, registration, taxes, and more -- that should stick in the craw instead of being stuck in the pocket with another type of vehicle.

WHAT'S A FAMILY TO DO?

Despite the odds against emerging unscathed from the teeming traffic and its many risks, we are all parts of a constantly moving, mobile society and must go with the flow to get to work, shopping and school.

First a family could pick a vehicle as though it is a matter of life or death, which it is. Next, they should consider a vehicle that can transport goods (and bads) with a reasonable amount of room and comfort, provide good reliability, low maintenance and operational costs. In addition, as a bonus, one with a certain amount of bragging (not dragging) rights for style, prestige or, in a fast-growing category, a certain level of non-gasoline "hybrid" functionality.

Although crash tests results can change year-to-year, a detailed study of current IIHS and NHTSA crash reports on new vehicles (not counting minivans, a special category which will be covered in upcoming articles) appears to favor the vehicle that made this nation, or at least its auto industry, great -- the wonder workhorse, the all-weather, all-purpose, all-dependable old grey mare, the four-door sedan.

YESTERDAY'S FAMILY CARS TODAY

Today, the one-time plain-Jane sedan has been so resized and glamorized that many are outstripping sports cars and top SUVs as vehicles of status. Although not necessarily tops on the crashworthiness tests (see below,) the top models of Lexus, Infiniti, Audi, Mercedes and others are replacing Corvettes and Porsches in the lots of snobbish restaurants and clubs. Many of these new beauties have been engineered to rival SUVs in practicality with fold-down rear seats, slide-through storage space for long objects like skis and two-by-fours.One model, the Chevrolet Maxx, even comes in "king size" to provide additional carrying space.

NOT ALL SEDANS SAFER

Spokespeople at IIHS point out that across vehicle types, larger cars like four-door sedans always have lower death rates than SUVs and larger pickups. However, they add, just because a vehicle falls within a category does not guarantee its safety level.

In almost every size group of two-door and four-door cars, the fatality rate in the worst car is at least twice as high as the rate in the best one. Further, in mid-size four-door cars, the differences can be much wider. The IIHS found that a German-made four-door was involved in 14 driver deaths per million registered vehicles. By comparison, a Japanese-made sedan in the same group showed an almost tenfold increase to 130 deaths per million, indicating that the lower death rate in the German vehicle was not likely by chance.

Although some family breadwinners can afford the dough for a pricey luxury car built like a Diebold vault, the majority of the safest family four-doors fit the realities of today's budget-conscious families. Despite major advancements in safety equipment such as curtain airbags and electronic stability control, weight and size still play a huge role in the overall safety potential of a vehicle. Among all classes, the smallest four-door models show the highest driver fatality rate, with mini two-door models a bit better. Mid-size and very large cars have the lowest rate of driver deaths.

DOUBLING DOWN YOUR BET

The differences in crashworthiness "grades" of vehicles is due to variances in testing procedures used by the government-sponsored NHTSA and the insurance industry-backed IIHS.

NHTSA awards from one to five stars for crashworthiness in a simulated 35 mph head-on crash; a 3,000 pound, 38.5 mph side impact test and rollover ratings. A five-star score for a frontal crash indicates injury potential of 10 percent or less while five stars for a side impact result indicates 5 percent risk or less.

The IIHS frontal crash is different. There, they crash vehicles headlight to headlight rather than nose to nose. This way, according to them, a smaller amount of the car, the driver's side, takes the heaviest impact. They feel this procedure accurately depicts the daily realities of traffic crash effects on vehicles and occupants. For its own side impact test, IIHS uses a moving 3,300 pound barrier, shaped like the front end of an SUV or pickup, to strike the driver side of a passenger vehicle at 31 mph. Their rear tests concentrate on the protection provided occupants from head restraints when a vehicle is struck from the rear. In early outings of this newest procedure, IIHS found that most got failing marks, but those that did earn high marks were vehicles made in Europe.

In addition to vehicle type, size and weight, IIHS spokesman Russ Rader says buyers should look for safety options that have been found effective, especially "side airbags with head protection and electronic stability control. Stability control is especially important if you're buying an SUV because SUVs have a higher rollover risk, but ESC is effective in cars too."

NOT ALL CARS CONSIDERED

Cracking the list of today's safest cars was no easy task -- to be included required all "Good" results in the IIHS tests, or four 5-star ratings in the NHTSA tests. The Subaru Legacy was the only car that made both lists. Many highly regarded and even high-rated cars in previous tests did not make the cut. Some just missed by one mark, others because their current models have yet to be tested.

Editors Note: Are you asking yourself why more cars aren't on both lists? So were we. This is what representatives from IIHS and NHTSA had to say.

Russ Rader of IIHS says, "One reason (more cars aren't on both lists) is that the Institute's side impact test is more demanding of cars because it's simulating a striking SUV or pickup truck, while NHTSA's side impact test represents a hit from another car. Cars that earn a good rating in the Institute's side impact test may not earn 5 stars in NHTSA's. Second, NHTSA doesn't take into account rear crash protection (whiplash) where the Institute requires a good rating in the rear test to be on the list of safest cars."

The NHTSA said through a spokesman: "They (IIHS) have specific reasons for conducting crash tests the way they do. We have very specific reasons for doing crash tests the way we do. One is not better than the other, just different. In the end, the consumer benefits because there are two sets of highly respected safety ratings to compare."