The 2009 Ford Escape and Escape Hybrid achieved a “Top Safety Pick” rating from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), which also named Mercury Mariner and Mariner Hybrid atop the small sport utility vehicle segment. The same four models also recently earned the U.S. government’s 5-star crash-worthiness rating.

The results top the Toyota RAV-4 in both independent crash safety ratings and, with the 2009 Escape’s improved fuel efficiency, offer better combined crash safety and fuel efficiency ratings than the Honda CR-V. Ford’s hybrids also outpaced Toyota Prius in both crash tests.

“Earning a Top Safety Pick is great news because IIHS tests are some of the most demanding conducted outside of our own laboratories, and customers are increasingly relying on them when choosing a new vehicle,” said Susan Cischke, senior vice president of Sustainability, Environment and Safety Engineering, Ford Motor Company. “The Ford Escape is one of few vehicles that earned both full 5-star crash ratings and a Top Safety Pick in the hotly contested small SUV segment – some of our toughest rivals such as Toyota cannot match us.”

The Ford Escape also is rewarding customers with large quality gains, matching lineup-wide improvements that have placed Ford on par with Toyota and Honda. The Escape earned a Top Three spot in J.D. Power and Associates’ 2008 Initial Quality StudySM, which measures new-vehicle quality at 90 days of ownership.

To earn IIHS’s Top Safety Pick, vehicles must earn the top “good” ratings in the institute’s high-speed front and side crash tests, and rear crash tests that include seat and head restraint evaluations. An added requirement since 2007 is that vehicles must also offer electronic stability control.

IIHS recognized improvements in Ford’s 2009 compact SUVs including “modifications to the frontal airbags and safety belts as well as structural changes to improve occupant protection in frontal crashes,” adding that “a new seat design improves the rear crash protection rating,” as well.

“We’ve devoted many hours to analyzing and improving the body structure, safety belts and air bags of Escape and Mariner for better performance in front and side impact crashes,” said Steve Kozak, chief engineer for safety systems, Ford Motor Company. “We’ve taken our compact SUVs to the next level of safety.”