The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety has introduced a new standard for vehicle crash tests that it hopes will save lives -- but it's so tough that only a small fraction of the cars tested actually passed.

Only three of the 11 midsize luxury and near luxury vehicles that were tested received a good or acceptable rating, the IIHS said Tuesday.

The new test rates vehicles on their ability to protect occupants in a "small overlap frontal crash." The traditional test has rated vehicles on their performance in full head-on crashes.

"Some of the best performers in this group were the Acura TL and the Volvo S60. Both of them earned good ratings in the test, also the Infinity G series earned an acceptable rating in this test but the rest of the vehicles were marginal or poor," said Russ Rader, the IHHS's senior vice-president of communications.

Rader told CTV's Canada AM that the Acura TSX, BMW 3 series, Lincoln MKZ and Volkswagen CC earned marginal ratings in the tests, while the Mercedes-Benz C-Class, Lexus IS 250 and 350, Audi A4 and Lexus ES 350 all earned poor ratings.

In the new test, 25 per cent of a car's front end on the driver's side strikes a rigid barrier at about 65 kilometres per hour with a dummy belted into the driver's seat.

The test is designed to replicate what happens when a car's front corner collides with another vehicle, a tree or barrier.

Adrian Lund, president of the IIHS, said the organization developed the test after realizing that even though most new cars perform well in frontal crash tests, more than 10,000 people die each year in the U.S. alone as the result of front-end accidents.

He said that's because small overlap crashes often change the way a vehicle reacts during a crash by shifting air bags and side impact curtains, making them less effective than in a full frontal crash.

In one crash test video on the IIHS website involving a Lincoln MKZ, the impact triggers the airbag but it completely misses the dummy's head, and while the side impact curtain inflates, it doesn't reach far enough forward to protect the driver.

In testing the Lexus IS, one of the worst performers in the tests, the car's front pillar was pushed in, the front wheel reached the occupant compartment and the foot well collapsed, potentially trapping the driver.

Lund said the goal of the new testing standard is to encourage manufacturers to prepare for all types of frontal impact accidents.

"It's Packaging 101. If you ship a fragile item in a strong box, it's more likely to arrive at its destination without breaking. In crashes, people are less vulnerable to injury if the occupant compartment remains intact," Lund said on the IIHS website.

Rader said the IIHS has so far only tested mid-size luxury and near-luxury vehicles, but will be expanding its testing this year to include family vehicles.

"Vehicles are much safer than they used to be and they'll be even safer as automakers redesign vehicles to meet this new challenge," Rader told Canada AM.