The 2005 Ford Escape improved its performance in new crash tests by the insurance industry and earned the second-highest rating, according to results released yesterday.

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety released results for four vehicles. The 2004 models of the mid-size Volvo S40, the BMW 5-series luxury sedan and the Nissan Titan pickup all received the institute's highest safety rating.

The institute tested each vehicle by crashing the driver's side into a barrier at 40 mph. The highest rating of "good" means a driver wearing a seat belt probably could walk away from a similar crash with minor injuries.

Ford's fast-selling Escape sport utility vehicle and its corporate twin, the Mazda Tribute, earned the second-best rating of "acceptable." That rating means there is the possibility of a serious injury.

The institute's chief operating officer, Adrian Lund, said Ford made structural changes that improved the Escape's performance. In 2001, when the institute last tested the Escape, crash tests indicated a driver would suffer a serious head injury. The Escape earned the second-lowest rating of "marginal."

The new tests showed damage to the lower body and serious neck injuries would likely occur if the Escape was in a similar real-world crash.

"The Escape still lags behind many other small SUVs that earn good ratings" in the institute's frontal crash test, Lund said.

Ford spokeswoman Kristen Kinley said the company gave the 2005 Escape a stiffer outer structure that helped the SUV earn the government's highest safety rating in a side crash test.

Small sport utility vehicles that have earned a "good" rating from the institute include the Honda CR-V, the Mitsubishi Outlander, the Honda Element, the Subaru Forester, the Saturn Vue and the Hyundai Santa Fe. Small SUVs that have earned an "acceptable" rating include the Toyota RAV4, the Jeep Wrangler, the Suzuki Grand Vitara, the Chevrolet Tracker and the Land Rover Freelander.

The Ford Escape is the only small SUV from the 2005 model year that has been tested so far. The institute buys the vehicles it tests from dealers' lots and tries to test most popular vehicles after they are newly released or redesigned.

Lund said most vehicles are now earning the institute's highest rating on the frontal driver's side crash test after nearly a decade of testing.