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The cars roll endlessly off the local assembly lines of the industry’s biggest automakers, more than 10,000 a day, into the eager hands of Brazil’s new middle class. The shiny new Fords, Fiats, and Chevrolets tell the tale of an economy in full bloom that now boasts the fourth-largest auto market in the world.

What happens once those vehicles hit the streets, however, is shaping up as a national tragedy, experts say, with thousands of Brazilians dying every year in auto accidents that in many cases shouldn’t have proved fatal.

The culprits are the cars themselves, produced with weaker welds, scant safety features and inferior materials compared with similar models manufactured for U.S. and European consumers, say experts and engineers inside the industry. Four of Brazil’s five best-selling cars failed their independent crash tests.

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Unsafe cars, coupled with the South American nation’s often dangerous driving conditions, have resulted in a Brazilian death rate from passenger-car accidents that is nearly four times that of the United States, according to an Associated Press analysis of Brazilian Health Ministry data on deaths compared to the size of each country’s car fleet.

In fact, the two countries are moving in opposite directions on survival rates — the U.S. recorded 40 percent fewer fatalities from car wrecks in 2010 compared with a decade before. In Brazil, the number killed rose 72 percent, according to the latest available data.

Dr. Dirceu Alves, of Abramet, a Brazilian association of doctors that specializes in treating traffic-accident victims, said poorly built cars take an unnecessary toll.

“The gravity of the injuries arriving at the hospitals is just ugly,” he said, “injuries that should not be occurring.”

Notion rejected

Automakers in Brazil point out that their cars meet the nation’s safety laws. Some said they build even tougher cars for the country because of its poorly maintained roadways and rejected any notion that cost-cutting in production leads to fatalities.

But the country’s few safety activists perceive a deadly double standard, with automakers earning more money from selling cars that offer drivers fewer safeguards — a worrisome gap for new middle-class households, whose surging spending power has outpaced consumer protections taken for granted in more developed countries.

“Entry-level cars in Brazil are incredibly dangerous, it can’t be denied. The death rate from accidents is far too high,” said Maria Ines Dolci, coordinator of the Rio de Janeiro-based consumer-defense group Proteste. “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 U.S.”

Manufacturers earn a 10 percent profit on Brazilian-made cars, compared with 3 percent in the U.S. and a global average of 5 percent, according to IHS Automotive, an industry consulting firm.

Only next year will laws require frontal air bags and anti-lock braking systems on all cars, safety features that have been standard in industrial countries for years. The country will also have new impact regulations on paper, at least; Brazilian regulators don’t have their own crash-test facility to verify automakers’ claims about vehicle performance, nor are there independent labs in the country.

Experts say those requirements alone are not sufficient to meet basic safety standards. Some models sold in Brazil, like the Chinese-made JAC J3, scored only one star in a recent crash test despite having air bags and anti-lock brakes.

An independent pilot effort known as the Latin New Car Assessment Program (NCAP) has run initial tests of Brazil’s most popular car models, and the results are bleak.

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

“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 general of the London-based FIA Foundation for auto safety, which supports the euro and Latin NCAP programs. “It’s definitely a difference between life and death.”

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

Ford acknowledged that particular Ka is built on an outdated platform, and said it cannot be compared with the European version of the same name — it’s that different. The company said it aims to have all its cars produced in Brazil built on updated, global platforms by 2015.

Italian automaker Fiat said in an emailed statement that “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 that Fiat’s best-selling car in Brazil, called the Novo Uno, had an unstable body structure and scored it just one star.

Crash-test footage shows the front of the car folding up like an accordion, giving it a 2.0 point rating, the second lowest of the 28 cars NCAP has examined. Consumers purchased nearly 256,000 Novo Uno’s last year — the second-most popular car in the country.

The French company Renault builds its Sandero in Brazil, selling 98,400 cars last year. That car scored one star on the Latin NCAP test, but the model sold in Europe, made by Renault’s Romanian subsidiary Dacia, scored three stars.

Renault said the safety record of the Sandero and its other cars were on par with autos of the same class in Brazil.

And then there are the cars the companies do not market outside Latin America, such as the Celta by GM. Celta is Brazil’s No. 5 car in terms of sales, with 137,615 sold last year. It received one star after its door unhinged and the passenger cabin roof bent into an inverted V shape during its crash test.

General Motors had no comment other than to say that its cars in Brazil are legal.

Company blamed

An engineer for a major U.S. automaker, speaking only on condition of anonymity for fear of losing his job, said he has watched for years as his company failed to implement more advanced safety features in Brazil, simply because the law did not require them.

”The automakers are pleased to make more profitable cars for countries where the demands, whatever they may be, are less rigorous,” he said. “It happens everywhere — India, China and Russia, for example.”

About 40 million Brazilians moved into the middle class during the past decade with more income than ever to buy their first car. The growth potential is enormous: One out of every seven Brazilians owns a car, while the U.S. vehicle fleet covers nearly every American.

But as auto sales boom in Brazil, so have the number of accidents and deaths.

An analysis of Health Ministry data shows that 9,059 car occupants died in vehicle crashes in Brazil in 2010, according to the most recent statistics available. That same year, 12,435 people in the U.S. were killed in car crashes, though the U.S. passenger car fleet is five times larger than Brazil’s. The result: Brazilian automobile crash victims died at four times the rate as those in the U.S.

The dangers come down to basics, engineers said: the lack of body reinforcements, lower-quality steel in car bodies, weaker or fewer weld spots to hold the vehicles together and car platforms designed decades before modern safety advances.

“The electricity used in building a car is about 20 percent of the cost of the structure,” said Marcilio Alves, an engineering professor at Brazil’s premier University of São Paulo and one of the few independent researchers in the nation looking at car safety.

“If you save on electricity, you save on cost. One way to save electricity is either reducing the number of spot welds or using less energy for each spot weld made. This affects structural performance in the event of a crash.”

Many Brazilian car bodies also don’t contain crumple zones, areas that absorb energy during wrecks. The omission endangers occupants’ lower limbs, as foot wells rip off and expose feet and legs to car parts slamming into them from the front.

“If a car’s body cannot absorb the energy of a crash, it will logically result in more damage, more injuries to passengers,” said Alves, the doctor who specializes in traffic accident victims.

Accidents involve more than a poorly built car.

Drivers fail to obey traffic laws, which many of the region’s governments notoriously don’t enforce. Cars must navigate crumbling roads and poorly designed highway systems that all but make gridlock and accidents unavoidable. And many drivers simply value perks such as alloy wheels and sound systems over unseen crumple zones.

The Brazilian government says its new laws mandating frontal air bags and anti-lock brakes will dramatically improve safety, as will new impact standards. But the companies will not face the same scrutiny as elsewhere because they will run the impact tests and present the results to the government for approval. Because there is no “conformity of production” clause in the Brazilian legislation, cars won’t be spot-checked to ensure they meet safety laws.

Alexandre Cordeiro, the top government minister overseeing auto-safety laws, acknowledged that the government doesn’t have its own crash-test center — but said Brazil will monitor crash tests conducted outside the country.

“Regarding front- and rear-end crash tests, our cars are as secure as European or American cars,” Cordeiro said.

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