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Second-Class Lives: Surviving a Car Crash Depends on Which Side of a Border You Live

Second-class life is an expression I coined when two events combined: Global NCAP crash tests and vehicles sold both in developed and developing countries. They allowed journalists to compare how the same model could offer diverse protection levels depending on where it was sold. Global NCAP demonstrated that once again, even if not comparing exactly the same model built in different countries. Unfortunately, that does not invalidate the “second-class life” concept. In a car crash, your survival may depend on which side of the border you live on.
These are the results for the Hyundai Accent and the Grand i10 Sedán in the Global NCAP crash testCrashed Hyundai Grand i10 Sedán demonstrates once again the second-class lives conceptCrashed Hyundai Grand i10 Sedán demonstrates once again the second-class lives conceptCrashed Hyundai Grand i10 Sedán demonstrates once again the second-class lives conceptThe Ford Ka+ had side-impact door beams; the Brazilian Ka didn'tThe infamous Ford Pinto Memo
What Global NCAP did was crash the cheapest sedans from Hyundai sold in two neighboring countries. On one side, it put a Hyundai Accent, which starts at $16,645 in the U.S. and is made in Mexico. On the other, there was a Hyundai Grand i10 Sedán, manufactured in India and sold in Mexico for 230,200 pesos, equivalent to $11,427 at the current exchange rate.

Curiously, the Accent is also sold in Mexico for 283,400 pesos ($14,068). If Global NCAP decided to crash it against the one sold in the U.S., that would not fit the criteria of being the cheapest one in Mexico. Still, it would allow us to check if the body construction presents any differences.

Although that is unlikely, the crash would still be worth it because the Accent’s safety content is different depending on where it is sold. In Mexico, it only has seat-mounted and curtain airbags in its most expensive derivative. Called GLS, this version also comes with an automatic transmission and costs 365,800 pesos ($18,158).

Shockingly, Mexicans have to pay around $2,500 more than Americans to buy a car made in their country with the same level of safety equipment. Global NCAP may think about this possibility in the future, although it often says that it does not have as much money as it would like to perform all the tests it wants to do.

The fact is that crashing the Accent with the Grand i10 Sedán proved the safety disparity that exists in entry-level vehicles depending on the market. The video below shows that the occupants of the Accent sold in the U.S. would probably survive if their sedan hit a Grand i10 Sedán in a front collision. The A-pillars and windscreen were mostly intact, the doors would open after the crash, and they could be quickly rescued in case that was necessary.

The same does not apply to the Grand i10 Sedán. The cabin's structural integrity is compromised, with a deformed left A-pillar and the left wheel pushing the front door back in a way that will make it very difficult to rescue the driver. David Ward, the executive president of Global NCAP, said that the people on the Indian sedan would face a “high risk of fatal or serious injury.” Global NCAP did not get into the specifics of the crash test, such as the speed the vehicles were traveling or the overlap percentage used.

Ask Hyundai about the vehicles, and it will say they follow all legal requirements to be sold in Mexico and the U.S. If you test them and verify if that is true, it will be. The double standard starts there: there is no minimum universal requirement for cars to be sold worldwide. Each country determines what is necessary, and most do not even follow the UN’s biomechanical recommendations.

That should not stop automakers from deciding to make their cars as safe as possible regardless of where they are sold, correct? Well, that is not how it works. As Alfred P. Sloan used to say, automakers’ business is not to make cars: it is to make money making cars. That mindset led us to the infamous Ford Pinto Memo. When that does not happen, they just have to close factories and fire people.

The situation is even more complicated in developing countries, where most customers can only buy very affordable vehicles. These cars only make sense if you can sell thousands or millions of them in a given country, especially if they are produced locally. Even if they are, the projects are not local: most come from developed countries. To sell these vehicles for cheap, car companies remove content from them.

In most developing countries, safety is not a priority. Buyers often prefer a car with an automatic transmission or a massive infotainment screen instead of six or more airbags, ESP… That leads automakers to remove safety content. If it is hidden, such as side-impact door beams, that’s even easier.

This is what Ford did with the third-generation Ka. Developed in Brazil, it was also sold in Europe. The irony is that Ford removed the side-impact door beams from the car made in Brazil, but not from that Europeans could buy. In Euro NCAP tests, the Ka+ got three stars. Latin NCAP tests gave it none, as I once wrote for KBB. You can also see the videos from these crash tests below.

While this may seem morally reprehensible, car executives argue that it at least allows people to have jobs in the automotive industry in developing countries. Ford killed its factories in Brazil and India because even these measures did not prevent it from losing money in these countries.

On one side, we are talking about human lives, which follow the same rules in any country: they all may be lost in very similar circumstances in traffic. David Ward expects the industry to adopt universal standards by 2030, with minimal safety standards.

On the other, we have an industry that is fighting to survive the electrification shift, the supply chain crisis, increasing fuel prices, lack of raw materials for batteries and electric motors, and inflation. For it to make money making cars, it will have to focus on the vehicles that turn a profit, not on the affordable ones that customers can buy but demand millions of units to deliver a marginal gain.

In such a scenario, we’ll probably have to get used to buying used cars that rich people do not want to drive anymore. Selling fewer vehicles that are more costly and lucrative, the automotive industry will shrink, forcing millions of people to find other jobs. The irony is that cars that are expensive to buy are usually also expensive to keep. Those with less money buying “rich people’s garbage” may oversee maintenance, which will lead us once again to unsafe vehicles on the streets.

That is how complicated the whole situation is. What society and the automotive industry have to decide is if this is a fair price to pay for safer vehicles and fewer traffic deaths. Honestly, the idea of “second-class lives” sounds much worse than not having affordable cars to drive anymore.

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