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Institute: New SUVs need tougher bumpers

WASHINGTON - A new generation of sport-utilities designed for suburban hauling and not off-road obstacles still faces daunting challenges: commuter traffic and parking lots.

And most models are going to fail those challenges because they have weak and poorly designed bumpers, says the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, a research organization for auto insurers.

The institute said six of seven newly tested models have bumpers that performed poorly or marginally in four 5-mph tests. The tests are: front into a flat barrier, front into an angled barrier, rear into a flat barrier and rear into a pole.

Only the 2001 Acura MDX performed well, institute officials said.

The lowest rated of the group were the 2002 Buick Rendezvous and the 2001 Suzuki Grand Vitara XL-7. The Rendezvous had the worst single result. The rear-into-a-pole test caused about $3,600 in damage. The XL-7 had the highest average repair cost for the four tests, about $1,450 in estimated damages. 'A terrible showing. The worst of a generally bad lot,' said Adrian Lund, the institute's COO.

American Suzuki Motor Corp. said in a statement that the XL-7's total was inflated by the damage caused when the spare tire on the tailgate of the vehicle hit the pole. The company said customers prefer the spare on the tailgate.

General Motors spokesman Bill Kemp said all of the company's vehicles tested meet or exceed federal bumper standards, and the Rendezvous offers an optional system that warns a driver when the vehicle is backing toward an object in the blind spot.

Both Suzuki and GM said the institute unfairly says its bumper tests are designed to improve safety. But actually the tests are designed to pressure automakers to make beefier bumpers and thus lower insurance costs of the institute's members, Suzuki and GM said.

In one unusual development, the institute said the 2002 Chevrolet TrailBlazer sustained no damage in the two rear tests but did so only because a sturdy, standard trailer hitch sticks out beyond the bumper.

The institute, blaming its own test procedure, threw out the results. It still considers the rear bumper to be poorly designed and rated the TrailBlazer on the average of the frontal tests only.

Other vehicles tested were the 2001 Toyota Highlander, 2001 Pontiac Aztek and 2002 Isuzu Axiom.

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