Small Japanese cars are more likely to be involved in personal injury accidents than other cars and sustain greater property damage in crashes, an insurance industry group reported yesterday.

Representatives of Japanese and other auto manufacturers said the report could be misleading and perhaps incorrect.

The report by the Highway Loss Data Institute, a research affiliate of the Washington-based Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, is based on a study of insurance claims for 181 new car models sold in the United States for the 1982 through 1984 model years.

The insurance industry researchers examined the frequency of insurance claims filed under personal injury coverage for 1982-1984 models and the average loss payment for property damage per insured vehicle year for 1983 and 1984 models. An "insured vehicle year" means one vehicle insured for one year.

"Japanese-made models dominate the list of cars with poor experience" in both personal injury and property damage, the report concluded.

"Large domestic models tend to have good experience in both categories. European cars, as a group, have good injury experience but bad vehicle damage results," the report said.

Critics -- even those from companies whose cars fared well in the study -- called the report an elaboration of the obvious. "There is longstanding agreement in the engineering community that greater mass offers greater protection," said a General Motors Corp. official, who requested anonymity.

GM is the nation's largest producer of full-sized cars. Several of its models -- including the Oldsmobile Delta 88, Buick LeSabre and Chevrolet Caprice, all of them full-size, four-door models, as well as Ford Motor Co.'s Lincoln-Mercury Grand Marquis -- received what the insurance industry called "best results" in both categories of the study.

Some auto industry officials cautioned that the study does not take into consideration other variables -- besides the car itself -- that could influence the number and size of claims for various models.

Younger drivers tend to buy small, two-door cars, seeking both economy and sportier styling, industry officials said. Younger drivers also tend to have more accidents.

Failure to adequately account for the difference in drivers and other factors would make the data "wrong, and if not wrong, it most certainly would be misleading," said Toni Harrington, a Washington official with Japan's Honda Motor Co. Ltd.

"No study is going to be perfect and give a definite answer, and we're not saying that this study is perfect," said Brian O'Neill, president of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, the insurance industry lobbying group that paid for the study.

O'Neill defended the report's accuracy and noted that it shows small cars can be safe. He cited the Saab 900 as a compact that did well in the study.

The report reviewed the two types of insurance claims and gave each car a score, with 100 representing the average performance for all cars studied. A score of 70 would be substantially better than average, while a score of 130 would be substantially worse.

The Saab 900, with a score of 70, topped the list of two-door models. By comparison, the Nissan Pulsar, Mitsubishi Cordia and the two-door Plymouth Colt (also made by Mitsubishi) received the "worst" ratings, with scores ranging from 149 to 158.

Insurance industry sources said that owners of those cars could be hit with higher premiums.

Japanese auto makers, which make mostly small, four-cylinder automobiles, took 18.3 percent of the U.S. car market last year. Of the 30 two-door small cars listed in the study, 16 were Japanese.

Among the models listed as small cars, the Mercedes-Benz 380 SL Coupe and the Chevrolet Corvette were listed as "substantially better than average" in injuries. Other small cars listed as "better than average" in injuries included the Porsche 944 Coupe and the Volkswagen Vanagon.

Eighteen small cars were listed as "substantially worse than average," and another 12 were listed as "worse than average" in overall injuries. Of those 30, 17 were Japanese.

Two-door models with "substantially worse than average" injury ratings were: Pontiac 1000, 155; Chevrolet Chevette, 154; Mitsubishi Cordia, 151; Dodge Colt, 149; Plymouth Colt, 148; Toyota Starlet, 148; Renault Alliance, 138; Nissan Sentra, 137; Mercury Lynx, 137, and Dodge Charger, 132.

Among four-door models, those rated "substantially worse than average" in injuries behind the Plymouth Colt were: Mitsubishi Tredia, 155; Nissan Sentra, 145; Dodge Colt, 144; Chevrolet Chevette, 143; Isuzu I-Mark, 140, and Pontiac 1000, 139.

By contrast, cars with the best injury records had ratings in the 50s and 60s.

According to the institute, models with the best results in both the injury and collision damage categories were the four-door Oldsmobile Delta 88, Buick LeSabre, Chevrolet Caprice and Lincoln-Mercury Grand Marquis; the Dodge Caravan and Plymout Voyager vans, Chevrolet Caprice and American Eagle 30 station wagons, and the two-door Ford Crown Victoria.

In overall injury alone, the best-rated cars were the Oldsmobile Custom Cruiser station wagon, 54; Volvo 240 station wagon, 56; Mercedes-Benz 380SL Coupe, 57, and Oldsmobile Delta 88, 59.