2014 Acura MDX crash test (© IIHS Staff)Click to enlarge picture

The Acura MDX undergoes crash testing that earned it a Top Safety Pick+ rating. The number of vehicles that qualified for this year's picks fell by more than 75 percent.

The old adage that "safety doesn't sell" certainly doesn't apply today. It has become just as critical a factor in the buying decision for most American motorists as fuel economy.

So, there could be a lot of attention paid to the latest list of America's safest cars for 2014, at least according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. A total of 22 vehicles made the trade group's most prestigious list, those given a Top Safety Pick+ rating, while another 17 got the still significant Top Safety Pick imprimatur.

There were a number of surprises delivered by the IIHS, however, including the absence of the new Toyota Corolla from the list. Only four products from the Japanese maker — and not a single one of its Lexus models — made this year's safest cars list. Indeed, while there were a whopping 130 different models that made the cut for 2013, only a total of 39 are on the list this year.

On the other hand, there were eight models built by Honda and its luxury Acura brand, more than any other manufacturer.

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"We've made it more difficult for manufacturers this year," says Adrian Lund, president of the IIHS, which has been awarding Top Safety Picks since 2006, adding the Top Safety Pick+ category in 2012.

The latter category has proven a particularly challenging one since it requires a vehicle to perform well in the so-called small overlap test. Designed to replicate a common type of real-world crash, 25 percent of a vehicle's front end on the driver's side strikes a rigid barrier at 40 mph. The test reflects what happens when the front corners of two vehicles collide, or when a car clips a tree or utility pole.

Several manufacturers have done poorly in the new test, leading both the IIHS and Consumer Reports magazine to downgrade a number of Toyota products — the influential nonprofit magazine lifting its Recommended Buy rating for the Camry earlier this year.

The Camry did get a Top Safety Pick rating from the IIHS, but only models "built after November 2013" when the maker rushed in with changes designed to improve the vehicle's performance in the small offset test. Similarly, only those Toyota Prius hybrids built since last month get a Top Safety Pick+ rating.

Mazda also had to tweak the design of its new Mazda3 subcompact to earn a plus rating, which only goes to models produced after October.

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Real-world crash statistics have shown that the latest safety technologies are responsible for a sharp reduction in traffic accidents — and fatalities — in recent years. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration recently announced a program designed to encourage manufacturers to push even more high-tech gear into production. And the IIHS is backing that effort with its safety ratings, notably giving bonus points to manufacturers who adopt the newest forward collision warning and autobrake systems.

In fact, most of the vehicles that earned a Top Safety Pick+ rating get there only by offering some form of forward collision system — whether a basic version that sounds an alert or the more advanced versions that can bring a car to a halt if an obstacle is detected.

"Consumers who want both crash prevention technology and the latest in occupant protection have a fair number of vehicles to choose from," Lund says. "We hope manufacturers will continue to incorporate front crash prevention, developing more robust systems and adding them to more trim levels or, better yet, making them standard equipment."

Here's the complete list from the IIHS for 2014:

Top Safety Pick+

Small cars
- Honda Civic 4-door
- Mazda Mazda3
built after October 2013
- Toyota Prius
built after November 2013

Midsize moderately priced cars
- Ford Fusion
- Honda Accord 2-door
- Honda Accord 4-door
- Mazda Mazda6
- Subaru Legacy
- Subaru Outback

Midsize luxury/near-luxury cars
- Infiniti Q50
- Lincoln MKZ
- Volvo S60

Large luxury cars
- Acura RL
- Volvo S80

Small SUVs
- Mazda CX-5
built after October 2013
- Mitsubishi Outlander
- Subaru Forester

Midsize SUV
- Toyota Highlander

Midsize luxury SUVs
- Acura MDX
- Mercedes-Benz M-Class
built after August 2013
- Volvo XC60

- Honda Odyssey

Top Safety Pick

- Chevrolet Spark

Small cars
- Dodge Dart
- Ford Focus
- Honda Civic 2-door
- Hyundai Elantra
- Scion tC
- Subaru Impreza
- Subaru XV Crosstrek

Midsize moderately priced cars
- Chrysler 200 4-door
- Dodge Avenger
- Kia Optima
- Nissan Altima
-Toyota Camry
built after November 2013
- Volkswagen Passat

Midsize luxury/near-luxury car
- Acura TL

Small SUV
- Mitsubushi Outlander Sport

Midsize luxury SUV
- Volvo XC90