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Datsun Was a Bet on Affordability That Failed to Understand Human Nature

Nissan announced this week that Datsun would bite the dust again. The first time it did that, it actually became Nissan, which is more evolution than death. After all, we do not say a caterpillar died so that a butterfly could emerge, right? However, I’m more interested in the reason for the demise than in the fact itself. Datsun died because it failed to understand human nature.
Datsun Go at the Nissan 360 event in 2013Datsun Go at the Nissan 360 event in 2013Datsun Go at the Nissan 360 event in 2013Datsun Go at the Nissan 360 event in 2013Datsun Go at the Nissan 360 event in 2013Datsun Go at the Nissan 360 event in 2013Datsun Go at the Nissan 360 event in 2013Datsun Go fails miserably in Global NCAP crash tests in 2014Datsun Go fails miserably in Global NCAP crash tests in 2014
Curiously, Datsun was reborn in India, a country that also did not forgive the Tata Nano for the same sin. Although Tata’s engineering challenge of creating the world’s cheapest car was accomplished, it did not realize that most people do not want to buy something reputed as “cheap” if it does not offer them something in return.

The only mainstream automaker to have successfully done that more recently was Dacia. When it created the Logan in 2004, it allowed people that needed a roomier C-segment car to buy a new one for the same price as the cheapest B-segment vehicles. People purchased it not because it was cheap: they did that because it made sense.

When Ratan Tata came up with the idea of creating the Nano, he wanted to put the families that rode motorcycles in a safer and more protected vehicle. The problem is that the families who could afford it preferred to buy used cars with more content or room for the same prices. The cheapest car in the world – costing the equivalent of $2,500 – endured for ten years.

Datsun was presented when Nissan celebrated its 80 years in August 2013. The Japanese carmaker held an event called “Nissan 360” in California to explain its future steps. Datsun would be Nissan’s affordable brand, much like Dacia became the attainable Renault. It even had a French executive in charge: Vincent Cobée, now Citroën’s brand CEO at Stellantis. It was there that I had the chance to ask Cobée about something that bugged me: why the Datsun Go – the company’s first new vehicle – did not have ABS or airbags.

At the time, I lived in Brazil, and the country had ruled that all cars made starting in 2014 would have to offer ABS and airbags as standard equipment. That is what killed the first-generation Fiat Uno and the Volkswagen T2 – locally called Kombi – in that market.

Latin NCAP had been crash-testing vehicles in the region since 2010, and that revealed some serious death traps for sale as new vehicles. The only excuse automakers had was that they complied with all safety regulations in all South American markets. That said more about how automakers ignored safety even with their advanced knowledge of biomechanics than about how pitiful those regulations were – and still are, in some countries.

It also made it evident that cars that looked the same and even had the same names presented much different safety levels depending on the market in which they were sold. I called that the “second-class lives” strategy, meaning lives in developing countries were cheaper and more disposable than those in wealthy markets. It was in that scenario that I asked Cobée about the lack of ABS and airbags in Datsun’s vehicles.

The French executive told me that the Japanese brand could create an incredibly safe vehicle with ESP and other standard features in European cars. The problem was that it would make it extremely expensive by Indian standards, restricting the number of people that could buy it. Summing up, a safe car that very few can buy does not play its role.

Although it seems to make sense, you could also say that selling millions of dangerous cars that poor people can afford can have horrible repercussions. It would be better to sell only a few if any car company could survive doing so. The irony here is that being affordable did not save Datsun.

In a test made by Global NCAP and published on November 6, 2014, Max Mosley called Carlos Ghosn to ask him to withdraw the Datsun Go from the market. It was also deadly, getting no stars in the entity’s crash tests. Saying that the body shell was unstable was an understatement: the A-pillar and the roof deformed in a scary way, as you can see in the video below.

People who have no idea how bad that is must watch a video recorded in July 2018 by Carlos Cristófalo from Motor1 Argentina. It shows how hard it is to remove a crash-test dummy from a zero-stars vehicle. The car in that video was a Chevrolet Aveo, but its body deformation was very similar to that of the Datsun Go. Make sure you also watch it.

When customers learn that a given car is dangerous, they tend to avoid it. The bargain proposition Datsun made incorporated a high cost. Even if it didn’t, it also offered nothing more to make it a clever choice spending little money on its vehicles, like Dacia pulled off with the Logan. Datsuns didn’t offer more room, more equipment, and didn’t look cool…

The brand’s failure may seem a misfortune if you miss all the elements that led it to an inevitable and melancholic end. It had nothing to save it apart from the low prices, which can actually play against it, as the Tata Nano taught us. Buying something just because it is cheap may make you look poor or a cheapskate, and most people will avoid being framed in either of these ways. Again, human nature. Deal with it, carmakers.

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