A group of small sport-utility vehicles scored poorly in the insurance industry's first test designed to measure how their occupants would be protected in a side impact crash involving another SUV, the Detroit News reported.

The newspaper said that the Insurance Industry for Highway Safety, which conducts and publicises results of two other crash tests, is beginning a new crash testing programme to evaluate how well cars and light trucks sold in the US hold up when struck in the side by SUVs. Testing for 11 small SUVs will be published in May.

According to the Detroit News, institute president Brian O'Neill said vehicles without side air bags aren't doing well protecting occupants in its new crash test. Three models tested with air bags are performing markedly better.

"We want side air bags to be standard equipment," O'Neill told the Detroit News.

The paper said that, of the 11 small SUVs tested, only two -- the Hyundai Sante Fe and the Subaru Forrester -- offer side air bags as standard equipment. Five other compact SUVs offer optional side air bags. Four models don't have side air bags.

The Detroit News said O'Neill criticised the US government's side-impact crash test as out of date with today's US vehicles. The barrier the government uses resembles a 1980 car, O'Neill reportedly said.

National Highway Traffic Safety Administration spokesman Rae Tyson told the Detroit News that the agency is considering changes to its side-impact testing programme.