U.S. cars continue to outperform foreign models in passenger safety and resistance to collision damage, according to a new insurance industry survey of accident claims.

But neither insurance officials nor domestic automakers were overjoyed by the findings.

The survey shows that "all cars on U.S. highways are obsolete from the safety standpoint, because they fail to use available technology that can offer drivers better protection," said Ben Kelley, a spokesman for the Highway Loss Data Institute, which conducted the study in cooperation with the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

Kelley said U.S. cars fared better in injury and collision studies mainly because they are bigger. "Larger cars tend to do better in crashes," he said.

Even automakers offered low-key responses, but for different reasons. Ford's 1981 Escort station wagon took overall honors in the survey's small car category, and Ford Motor Co. safety director Roger Maugh said, "We're happy we did well.

"But we can't take much of the credit for that. The biggest single variable in any survey like this is the guy behind the wheel. Station wagons usually have more mature drivers who don't take many chances. You have to give the driver a lot of the credit for this one," Maugh said.

Kelley said the HLDI study was based on an analysis of the frequency of injury claims filed by owners of 1979-1981 model cars and on the size of the average collision claim paid to owners of 1980 and 1981 models. The current survey is the first in which HLDI has presented its injury and collision findings together for the same model years, Kelley said.

Most of the cars with the best results are large station wagons, the survey said. The cars with the best overall loss experience are the Oldsmobile 98 and Chevrolet Caprice station wagons, and two four-door sedans, the Pontiac Catalina and Buick LeSabre.

Nearly all of the cars with the worst loss experience are small two-doors or sports models. Foreign cars crowd this category and, as a result, had the worst safety and collision records.

In the midsize category where there is a better mix of foreign and domestic models, a Toyota Cressida finished last with a "substantially worse than average" rating.

Cars with the worse loss experience in all loss categories -- overall injury, severe injury and collision -- are the Dodge Challenger, Plymouth Sapporo, Datsun 200 SX, and Toyota Corolla, all Japanese imports. The fiberglass-bodied Chevrolet Corvette and the Datsun 280 ZX, both small sports cars, "have extremely bad collision results," the survey said.

Robert Boaz, a spokesman for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, said his agency could not comment on HLDI's findings until "we've had a chance to study" the report. "But we do use a lot of their data," Boaz said about the research group.

Industry officials, as reflected in a published comment by General Motors Corp. vice president Howard Kehrl, remain unimpressed:

"If you stick with large cars, statistically speaking, it could add about two and a half months to your life," Kehrl said in a current edition of Car & Driver magazine. Where you live makes more difference than what you drive, he said, moving from the city to the country could add one to five years to your life."