WASHINGTON (AP) _ Car buyers interested in safety should insist on a vehicle with air bags to protect both front-seat occupants, the author of an annual consumer guide says.

Jack Gillis, author of ''The Car Book,'' said many drivers mistakenly think that handling and performance are the key elements in the safety of a car. But most new cars meet basic handling requirements.

''The main reason handling is overrated as a safety measure is that automobile collisions are, by nature, accidents,'' he said in the 1994 edition of his guide, scheduled for release Tuesday.

''The key to protecting yourself is to purchase a car that offers a high degree of crash protection.''

Gillis' 224-page book rates each car model in a number of different categories, including crash safety, fuel economy, repair costs, warranties, insurance costs, complaint history, and the availability of air bags and anti- lock brakes. The greatest weight is given to crash test performance.

The top-rated cars for 1994 were the Hyundai Excel, which has no airbags, in the subcompact category; the Nissan 240SX, which has no airbags, in the compact size; the Ford Taurus Wagon, which has dual airbags, in the intermediate class, and the Pontiac Trans Sport, Oldsmobile Silhouette and Chevrolet Lumina minivans. The three minivans all have a driver's side airbag and all earned a 10, the highest score given.

The best car in the large category was the Mercury Cougar. It has dual airbags and earned a seven.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration will require all cars beginning with the 1998 model year to be equipped with driver-side and passenger-side air bags in the front seat.

Gillis cautioned that minivans, sport-utility vehicles and pickup trucks - the fastest growing automotive segments - do not have to comply with the same federal safety regulations as cars. But such protections are being phased in for those vehicles as well.

Air bags will become standard in the 1999 model year for the light trucks. Many manufacturers already install them though they are not yet required to do so by the government.

To analyze complaint history, Gillis looked at the number of complaints to the government about a car and the number of them on the road. The most trouble-free cars were the Eagle Summit Wagon, the Lexus SC300-400, Mazda RX7 and Volkswagen Eurovan. The most complaints were on the Ford Crown Victoria, Buick Roadmaster, Cadillac Eldorado and Chrysler Town and Country.

Gillis said manufacturers have been responding to the demand for safer vehicles.

''In the last 25 years, even though the number of vehicles on the road has more than doubled, the fatality rate has dropped by an astonishing 66 percent,'' Gillis said.

In 1992, 1.8 fatalities were reported per 100 million vehicle miles traveled. That compares to 5.5 in 1966, said Tim Hurd, a spokesman for traffic safety administration.

Also, the 39,235 highway fatalities reported in 1992 were the fewest since 1962, when 38,980 were reported. The number peaked in 1972, when 54,589 deaths were reported, Hurd said.

''As our concern for safety has influenced car makers' attitudes, so have our demands for quality. The result: U.S. cars in the '90s continue to be better built than those of the '80s,'' Gillis said. ''And because we're demanding that companies stand behind their products, we're seeing better warranties too.''

Gillis, a marketing analyst at the traffic safety administration during preparation of the first edition of ''The Car Book'' in 1981, has published the 13 subsequent editions independently.