The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety on Monday said 10 2006 model cars have won its first ever Top Safety Pick award.

The Gold and Silver awards recognise car designs that afford the best protection for people in front, side, and rear crashes, based on performance in institute tests, which are independent of official government tests by the National Highway and Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). The winning vehicles were chosen from among current models of small, midsize, and large cars plus minivans.

There's a gold-standard winner in three of these four groups. They include two large car designs (Ford's Five Hundred and its Mercury Montego twin, but only with optional side airbags), two midsize cars (US-specification Saab 9-3, Subaru Legacy), and the new Honda Civic sedan in the small car category.

Silver picks were the Audi A3, A4 and A6, Volkswagen's new Jetta and Passat and the Chevrolet Malibu with optional side airbags.

The US brands were notable for charging buyers extra for the top safety package.

No minivans met the Institute's criteria to earn a Top Safety Pick. Pickups and SUVs weren't included in this round of awards because side impact tests of most of these vehicles haven't been conducted yet.

"Now that we're rating vehicles' front, side, and rear crashworthiness, based on test performance, we decided to give consumers an overall assessment based on all three tests. These Top Safety Picks are replacing our previous 'best pick' designations that were awarded separately for front and side crash test performance," institute president Brian O'Neill said.

"The new awards mean consumers can compare cars' ratings more quickly and easily. They won't have to review multiple sets of test results separately. And when we test new car designs as they are introduced next year, it's possible that some additional models will be added to the 2006 Top Safety Picks."

Winners of the gold award earned good ratings in the Institute's frontal offset and side impact crash tests, and their seat/head restraints were rated good for protection against neck injuries in rear impacts.

Silver awards went to vehicles with good performance in the front and side crash tests plus acceptable seat/head restraint ratings.

Awards are by car size class because vehicle size and weight influence occupant protection in serious crashes.

Top Safety Picks indicate the best choices for safety within each size class, but they don't mean a small car that's an award winner affords better protection than a larger car that didn't win a Top Safety Pick.

Almost all of the 10 winners are relatively new designs, and they all had side airbags (albeit optional on the US brands) designed to protect people's heads. This reflected the improvements manufacturers have been making in the side and rear crash protection afforded by their newer cars (most vehicles have afforded good occupant protection in frontal crashes for several years).