Associated Press/ Insurance Institute for Highway Safety
A 2008 Dodge Dakota crew cab is tested in a frontal offset crash. The vehicle received a good rating for the test. Small pickups are drawing consumer interest because they get better gas mileage than larger trucks.

WASHINGTON — The latest crash tests by the insurance industry raise safety questions about small pickups, which are drawing more interest because they get better mileage than larger trucks.

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety reported Thursday that several small pickups from the 2008 model year offered dismal protection in side crashes. Versions of the Chevrolet Colorado and its twin vehicle, the GMC Canyon, without optional side air bags earned the institute's lowest rating of poor in the side test.

Several pickups were judged marginal, the second-lowest in the four-scale ratings, in the side tests: the Dodge Dakota and Mitsubishi Raider without optional side air bags; the Ford Ranger; Mazda B-Series; and the Nissan Frontier without side air bags. The Ranger and B-Series, which share the same underpinnings, do not offer side air bags.

"More people may be looking at small pickups because of rising gas prices," said Adrian Lund, the institute's president. "Unfortunately, they won't find many that afford state-of-the-art crash protection."

The 2008 Toyota Tacoma was the only small pickup tested to merit the top score in side crashes. The Tacoma was tested with optional side air bags because the equipment will be standard on 2009 Tacoma pickups being shipped to dealers this month, the institute said.

Nearly 9,000 motorists died in side crashes in 2006, the second most common after front-end accidents. Side air bags have been credited with providing additional protection. Automakers have said they will make the side air bags standard across their fleets by the 2010 model year.

In front-end crashes, the Tacoma, Dakota, Raider and Frontier received the top score, or good; the Ranger, B-Series, Colorado and Canyon earned the second-highest score, acceptable.

The institute noted that only a few of the vehicles offer anti-rollover technology called electronic stability control. Stability control is optional on the Tacoma and Frontier and unavailable on the other vehicles tested. It will be standard equipment on the Tacoma, Colorado and Canyon in 2009.

GM spokeswoman Carolyn Markey said the automaker conducts more than 150 different types of crash tests on its vehicles and said the institute's test is "designed to simulate a very severe crash." She said the Colorado and Canyon have performed well in other consumer tests.

Chrysler LLC spokesman Max Gates said the Dakota had received the highest rating in every category of the government's front-end and side tests. A vehicle's overall safety performance could not be determined by a single test, he said.

Ford spokesman Wes Sherwood said the Ranger was "very competitive" among small pickups and had performed well in government crash tests.

Nissan spokeswoman Jeannine Ginivan said the company designs "all of our products to provide a high level of occupant safety in a wide range of real-world crashes, including side-impact collisions."

Sales of some small pickups have fared better than full-size trucks, which have seen their sales plummet because of high fuel prices. The small pickups offer better fuel economy ratings than large pickups. One version of the Tacoma, for example, has combined fuel efficiency ratings of 22 miles per gallon while versions of the Colorado got a combined 20 mpg, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

In the institute's side test, the vehicle's side is struck by a barrier moving at 31 miles per hour. The barrier simulates the front end of a pickup or sport utility vehicle. In the government's side-impact tests, a shorter, more lightweight barrier strikes into the side of the vehicle at 38.5 mph.