What a difference a year makes. When the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety released its Top Safety Picks for 2010, just 27 vehicles made the cut, a fraction of the average lineup. Whole categories were knocked out of the running by the addition of a rollover test, and industry giant Toyota and its Scion and Lexus brands were shut out entirely. To their credit, automakers rose to the challenge, revamping and retesting scores of models throughout 2010 to meet the new criteria. Let's call it a rebuilding year. As of this writing, the IIHS Top Safety Picks for 2011 include 66 vehicles, with every major automaker showing up in at least one category.

Here are the 10 most notable picks, as well as a breakdown of all the winners.

Bing: History of IIHS' Top Safety Picks

LARGE CARS

One of the more bruised categories returns to form, going from a paltry four selections in 2010 to 12 this year.

Top Performer
Toyota Avalon

There's little exceptional about the Avalon, a full-size sedan that emphasizes roomy creature comforts over head-turning design. What is worth noting is that the Avalon made the IIHS list, while Toyota's biggest sellers, the Camry and Corolla, did not.

Other Winners

Buick LaCrosseInfiniti M37/M56 (except M56x 4-wheel drive)
Buick RegalLincoln MKS
BMW 5-Series (except 4-wheel drive and V8)Mercedes E-Class coupe
Cadillac CTS sedanMercedes E-Class sedan
Ford TaurusVolvo S80
Hyundai Genesis 



MIDSIZE CARS

The midsize category was the only one with a strong showing in the 2010 list, and this year an additional five models passed muster, for a total of 15 Top Safety Picks.

Top Performers
Dodge Avenger

Big changes are in the works for Chrysler and Dodge as Fiat attempts to pull this struggling company into profitability, which means the low-selling Avenger might not survive past 2012. But that's tomorrow. Today, the Avenger is one of four vehicles in the Chrysler Group to receive top honors from the IIHS, along with the Chrysler 200, Dodge Journey and Jeep Grand Cherokee.

Kia Optima
Not only are Korean automakers Hyundai and Kia muscling in on Honda's and Toyota's sales in the United States and grabbing headlines with the Equus' owner's-manual-on-an-iPad gimmick, but their reputation for quality is on the rise, and has been for more than a decade. Optima's selection — it's new to the list, joining the Sonata in this same category — is further proof that safety and affordability are not mutually exclusive.

Other Winners

Audi A3Mercedes C-Class
Audi A4 sedanSubaru Legacy
Chevrolet MalibuSubaru Outback
Chrysler 200 4-doorVolkswagen Jetta sedan
Ford FusionVolkswagen Jetta SportWagen
Hyundai SonataVolvo C30
Lincoln MKZ 

SMALL CARS

Click to enlarge pictureChevrolet Cruze RS (© General Motors and Wieck Media Services, Inc.)

Chevrolet Cruze RS

From five models last year to 11 for 2011, the small-car category has made a minor comeback, thanks to a mix of old standbys, such as the Honda Civic and Subaru Impreza, and a few newcomers to the IIHS top picks, such as the Scion tC and the Volkswagen GTI 4-door.

Top Performer
Chevrolet Cruze
Detroit isn't going down without a fight, and domestic automakers seem determined to show that they can respond to a changing market. The new Chevrolet Cruze, a nimble, turbocharged little 4-door whose fuel efficiency, at 36 mpg combined, rivals that of many hybrids, manages to cram 10 airbags into its small frame, including ones that protect the knees. This is how a car can and should debut.

Other Winners

Honda Civic 4-door (except Si) with optional electronic stability controlScion tC
Kia Forte sedanScion xB
Kia SoulSubaru Impreza sedan and hatchback (except WRX)
Mitsubishi Lancer (except 4-wheel drive)Volkswagen Golf 4-door
Nissan cubeVolkswagen GTI 4-door


MINICARS

The laws of physics are stacked against this category. Very small cars fare poorly in collisions with even average-sized vehicles, which are nearly always larger and heavier and often ride high enough to wreak havoc on lower-slung subcompacts. There has never been more than one IIHS top pick for minicars.

Top Performer
Ford Fiesta

The Fiesta has stormed the automotive world, earning almost universally positive reviews among journalists and helping to redefine Ford's image around the world. It was a finalist for World Car of the Year in 2009, losing out to the VW Golf. And since the IIHS added the roof-strength test, the Fiesta — sedan and hatchback versions built after July 2010 — has survived what the previous winner, the Honda Fit, could not.

Bing: 2009 World Car of the Year