Brazilians pay high price for new cars

The world's giant carmakers skimp on safety, and a nation's eager owners feel the pain

Brazil's few safety advocates point the finger for many fatalities at low standards on the nation's assembly lines. Photo / AP
Brazil's few safety advocates point the finger for many fatalities at low standards on the nation's assembly lines. Photo / AP

Cars roll endlessly off the assembly lines of the industry's biggest carmakers, more than 10,000 a day, into the eager hands of Brazil's new middle class. Shiny new Fords, Fiats and Chevrolets tell of a booming economy that boasts the fourth largest vehicle market in the world.

What happens once those vehicles hit the streets is shaping up as a national tragedy, experts say. Thousands of Brazilians are dying every year in road accidents, many of which shouldn't have proven fatal.

The culprits are the cars, produced with weaker welds, scant safety features and inferior materials compared to those made for buyers elsewhere in the world, say experts and engineers. Four of Brazil's five best-selling cars failed independent crash tests.

Unsafe cars, coupled with the South American nation's often dangerous driving conditions, have resulted in a death rate from passenger car accidents that is nearly four times that of the US, according to an Associated Press analysis.

The US recorded 40 per cent fewer fatalities from car wrecks in 2010 compared with a decade before. In Brazil the number rose 72 per cent.

Carmakers in Brazil point out their vehicles meet the nation's safety laws. Some said they build even tougher cars for the country because of its poorly maintained roads and rejected claims of cost-cutting.

But the country's few safety activists say carmakers earn more from selling cars that offer drivers fewer safeguards.

"Entry-level cars in Brazil are incredibly dangerous," said Maria Ines Dolci, coordinator of the Proteste consumer group. "The manufacturers do this because the cars are a little cheaper to make and the demands of the Brazilian consumers are less; their knowledge of safety issues is lower than in Europe or the US."

Manufacturers earn a 10 per cent profit on Brazilian-made cars, compared with 3 per cent in the US and a world average of 5 per cent, according to IHS Automotive, an industry consulting firm.

Only next year will laws require frontal airbags and antilock braking systems on all cars, standard in industrial countries for years. The country will also have new impact regulations - on paper, at least; Brazil doesn't have a crash-test facility to verify carmakers' claims.

Experts say requirements are not sufficient to meet basic safety standards.

An independent pilot effort known as the Latin New Car Assessment Program has run initial tests of Brazil's most popular car models.

The cheapest models of four of the five top-selling cars, made by GM, Volkswagen and Fiat, received a one-star rating, while other top sellers also scored poorly. Such a rating
means cars provide little protection in serious head-on wrecks, compared to four- or five-star rated cars, which are virtually the minimum that consumers buy in developed nations.

''The difference is you're talking about somebody dead in the vehicle or dying very quickly, or somebody being able to get out of the vehicle themselves,'' said David Ward, director of the London-based FIA Foundation for car safety.

The Ford Ka hatchback sold in Europe scored four stars when tested by Euro NCAP in 2008; its Latin American version scored one star.

Ford acknowledged that Ka is built on an outdated platform and said it cannot be compared with the European version it's that different. It aims to have all its cars
produced in Brazil built on updated global platforms by 2015.

The Mexico-produced Nissan March sold in Latin America received a two-star rating, while the version sold for about the same price in Europe, called the Micra, scored four stars. The tests found the Latin American model had a weak, unstable body structure that offered little protection in even non-serious wrecks.

Fiat said: ''In general, Brazilian projects receive more reinforcements within the cars' bodies to fortify them against the nation's harsher roads and terrain.''

However, NCAP tests found Fiat's best-selling car in Brazil, the Novo Uno, had an unstable body structure and scored just one star.

Crash-test footage shows the front folding up like an accordion, giving it a 2-point rating, the second lowest of the 28 cars examined.
Consumers bought nearly 256,000 Novo Uno's last year the second-most popular car in the country.

Volkswagen said it strives to maintain a global standard for body strength, putting the same number of welds on the same models regardless of where they're produced, and using high-strength steel in Brazilian cars. It added that since 1998 it's given Brazilian
consumers the option of buying a car with airbags its Gol Trend model with two frontal airbags scored three stars, while the same model without airbags scored one star.

Latin NCAP has tested three VW models. The Gol and the Polo had stable bodies. The Bora sedan was rated as unstable, though other factors helped it score three stars.

And then there are the cars the companies do not market outside Latin America, such as GM's Celta. It received one star after its door unhinged and the roof bent into an inverted V shape during its crash test.

Brazil's fifth-bestselling car with more than 137,000 bought last year, GM would only comment other that its cars in the country are legal.

About 40 million Brazilians moved into the middle class during the past decade with more income than ever to buy their first car. Today just one out of every seven Brazilians owns a car, so the growth protential is enormous.

Many accidents involve more than a poorly built car. Drivers fail to obey traffic laws. Cars must navigate crumbling roads and poorly designed highways that make gridlock and accidents unavoidable. And many drivers value alloy wheels and sound systems over unseen crumple zones.

Alexandre Cordeiro, the minister overseeing car safety laws, acknowledged the government doesn't have its own crash-test centre. Asked about the differences in performance between Brazilian and European cars, Cordeiro acknowledged improvements need to be made.

-AP

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