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Are cheap cars safer than expensive ones?

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PRNewsFoto/Insurance Institute for Highway Safety

(Read caption) Ruckersville, Virginia. A crash test is performed at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety in Ruckersville, Va. More than 10,000 people are seriously injured or killed in small overlap crashes every year, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

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New crash tests replicating some of the most deadly head-on collisions show less expensive midsize cars do a better job protecting the driver and front seat occupants than many luxury and near luxury midsize cars.

"This is a surprise to us," says Adrian Lund, President of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. "It shows you don't have to spend a lot of money to get state of the art crash protection." (Read More: Whoa! 1.7 Billion Cars on the Road by 2035.)

The latest IIHS small overlap crash tests measure how well mid-size cars handle accidents involving their front quarter panels. Small overlap crashes are responsible for approximately one out of every four frontal crashes. The Insurance Institute says more than 10,000 people are seriously injured or killed in small overlap crashes every year. 

Less Expensive, Greater Safety

The IIHS tested eighteen moderately priced midsize cars and rated two as "good" and eleven as "acceptable." The two cars rated as good by the IIHS are the Suzuki Kazashi and the Honda Accord. Lund credits Honda with making changes to the Accords design and structure so it can better withstand small overlap crashes. (Read More: US November Auto Sales Surge to 4.5-Year High)

Honda's Advanced Compatibility Engineering, also known as ACE, is the key the Accords rating of good. "The idea is to dissipate the crash energy while reinforcing the passenger cabin so the car can better withstand the impact," says Chuck Thomas, Chief Engineer of Auto Safety Research for Honda. 

Here are the rankings of the midsize cars.

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Good

Honda Accord (4 door)

Suzuki Kizashi

Acceptable

Ford Fusion

Honda Accord (2 door)

Nissan Altima (4 door)

Nissan Maxima

Subaru Legacy

Subaru Outback

Dodge Avenger

Chrysler 200 (4 door)

Mazda 6

Volkswagen Passat

Marginal

Hyundai Sonata

Chevrolet Malibu

Volkswagen Jetta Sedan

Poor

Toyota Camry

Toyota Prius V

Has Toyota Dropped the Ball?

Adrian Lund was not surprised the Toyota Camry and Prius V both rated poor in the small overlap crash test. The Camry is based on the same platform as the Lexus ES, which is one of four luxury midsize sedans rated as poor during the same type of crash tests conducted this summer. "I think Toyota has dropped the ball a bit," says Lund. "Toyota has not been as aggressive as other automakers staying up to date on occupant safety."(Read More: Sticker Shock: New Car Prices Are Going Up)

Luxury Still Struggling

The first group of vehicles the IIHS put through small overlap crash tests were midsize luxury and near luxury models. During those tests, just 3 of 11 models were rated as "good" or "acceptable". The Volvo S60 and Acura tl were rated as good while the Infiniti G models were rated as acceptable. The four luxury models rated as poor in small overlap crash tests were the Mercedes C-Class, the Lexus IS, Audi A4, and Lexus ES.

Why the difference between the moderately priced midsize sedans and their more expensive counterparts? Lund says automakers have had more time to incorporate design changes in midsize models than they did with luxury models tested earlier this year.

—By CNBC's Phil LeBeau; Follow him on Twitter @LeBeauCarNews

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