Sport-utility vehicles, particularly car-based crossover models, have quickly become the rides of choice in the U.S., particularly among families for their added interior room and cargo space, compared to same-size sedans or hatchback cars. As such, choosing a model that’s one of the safest SUVs out there should be of primary concern. The best of them will not only protect a family’s precious cargo in a crash, they will help drivers avoid getting into a wreck in the first place.

Fortunately for new-vehicle shoppers, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) extensively evaluates a wide assortment of mainstream and luxury-brand SUVs on both counts. As it turns out, the 2021 crop of SUVs is the best ever with regards to safety, with 46 small, midsize, and luxury models earning either “Top Safety Pick” or “Top Safety Pick+” honors. And that’s despite the IIHS upping the ante in recent years by requiring stricter criteria for a given model to achieve either status.

We’re highlighting the 2021 Top Safety Pick+ award winners below.

To achieve Top Safety Pick status, a given model must receive good marks in all of the IIHS’ crashworthiness tests. These include front and side-impact crash tests, and both driver- and passenger-side small overlap frontal crash tests that replicate hitting a tree or light pole. In the real world, the IIHS says the driver of a vehicle that’s rated good is 70 percent less likely to die in a left-side crash, compared with someone piloting a model graded as “poor” in this regard. 

Each model must further earn a “superior” or “advanced” designation for its standard or optional forward emergency automatic braking system. Superior-rated systems can automatically apply the brakes if necessary to avoid a crash or reduce speeds by at least 5 mph in two tests conducted at 12 and 25 mph. An advanced-rated model must be able to avoid a collision in at least one of the two tests. 

The IIHS now also considers vehicle-to-pedestrian crash protection in addition to vehicle-to-vehicle emergency braking systems. Vehicles are tested under three circumstances at two different speeds: an adult pedestrian stepping into the street in the path of the oncoming vehicle with an unobstructed view, a child darting into the street from behind two parked cars, and an adult pedestrian near the side of the road in the travel lane, facing away from traffic. 

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In order to get the “Plus” designation, a vehicle must further offer good or acceptable-rated headlights as standard equipment (non-plus models have to at least offer them as optional equipment somewhere within the model line). Illuminating the road ahead is an often overlooked, but critical element of vehicle safety, as about half of traffic deaths occur in the dark, and a quarter of them on unlit roads. Many poor-rated systems don’t provide enough illumination to enable a driver going 55 mph on a straight road to stop in time after spotting an obstacle in the vehicle’s path. 

Among automakers, Mazda and Volvo are tied with the most Top Safety Pick+ SUVs, with four models each. Alternative-fuel vehicles, are represented for 2021 by two full-electric SUVs, the Audi e-tron and e-tron Sportback, the Volvo XC60 and XC90 Recharge plug-in hybrids, and the fuel-cell hydrogen-powered Hyundai Nexo (sold only in California)

Note that IIHS focuses its efforts on the industry’s best-selling vehicles, which tends leave out low volume luxury vehicles at the upper end of the price spectrum. What’s more, some new or fully redesigned vehicles may not have yet been put though their paces; ratings are updated on an ongoing basis.

Also, given the laws of physics, frontal crash-test results can only be accurately compared among same-size vehicle. This means a top-rated compact SUV will not necessarily offer the same level of occupant protection as a larger and heavier model in a given collision. Side-impact tests, on the other hand, can be readily compared across vehicle size and weight classifications due to the manner in which they are conducted.

Here are the IIHS Top Safety Pick+ rated SUVs for 2021:

Small SUVs

  • Mazda CX-3
  • Mazda CX30 (built after September 2020)
  • Mazda CX-5
  • Nissan Rogue
  • Subaru Forester
  • Volvo XC40

Midsize SUVs

  • Ford Explorer
  • Hyundai Palisade
  • Mazda CX-9
  • Nissan Murano
  • Subaru Ascent
  • Toyota Highlander

Midsize Luxury SUVs

  • Acura RDX
  • Cadillac XT6
  • Genesis GV80
  • Hyundai Nexo
  • Lexus NX
  • Volvo XC60 Recharge
  • Volvo XC90
  • Volvo XC90 Recharge

Large SUVs

  • Audi e-tron
  • Audi e-tron Sportback

You can see the full list of the IIHS Top Safety Picks among cars, trucks, SUVs, and minivans for 2021 here.