Adrian Lund, the Institute's president, said the Escape, Tiguan, Outlander and Rogue were all equipped with standard electronic stability control - which guards against rollovers - and side air bags.
The safety equipment helped the vehicles show improvements across the board, including in the side tests.
"This is a huge change from just five years ago when most small SUVs were rated either marginal or poor in our side test, and standard side air bags and electronic stability control were rare," Lund said.
The marks for the Escape also apply to the Mercury Mariner and Mazda Tribute, and hybrid versions of the Escape and Mariner. The vehicles share the same underpinnings.
The 2008 Jeep Wrangler, meanwhile, which was tested without optional side air bags, received the Institute's lowest score of poor in the side test. Previous versions of the two-door vehicle had received the second-lowest score of marginal in side crashes.
Lund said that during the latest test, the Wrangler's driver door opened during the crash. The opening could lead to a person being ejected from the vehicle, he said.
Chrysler LLC spokesman Max Gates said the Wrangler "meets or exceeds" all federal safety standards and "no single crash test provides a full picture of a vehicle's crashworthiness."
Tests of the 2008 Jeep Patriot showed the benefits of side air bags. A version of the Patriot equipped with an optional front torso air bag received the top score of good in the side test. A Patriot without the side air bags received the second-lowest score in a separate side test.
Both versions of the Patriot received the second-highest score of acceptable in the front-end test.
In other tests, the 2008 Suzuki Grand Vitara received the highest score in the front-end test and the second-highest mark in the side test.
The 2008 Chevrolet Equinox and Pontiac Torrent without optional side air bags received the top score in the front-end test and the second-lowest rating in the side test.
GM spokeswoman Carolyn Markey said the Equinox and Torrent will have head curtain side-impact air bags as standard equipment in the 2009 model year.
Markey said GM develops its vehicles to provide protection in more than 150 types of collisions. She called the IIHS side test a "single and very severe test."
The Institute has advocated that automakers make side air bags and electronic stability control standard equipment on new cars and trucks. Electronic stability control will be required on all new vehicles by the 2012 model year while automakers have said they will make side air bags standard across their fleets by the 2010 model year.
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.