This week, the idea of Brazil’s cars being “unsafe” due to inferior construction has been gaining a lot of currency on the blogosphere after the Associated Press published a report on this topic. Very few outlets have anyone posted in Brazil to do any deeper digging, but TTAC does. Unfortunately, our man Marcelo de Vasconcellos is currently in exams right now (good luck, Senhor!) and was unable to write up an article refuting these claims. Still, Marcelo took the time out to talk to TTAC about the problems behind the article.
The various articles floating around the web allege that Brazilian cars are doomed to be “unsafe” due to poor workmanship, excessive cost-cutting and poor grades of steel. Marcelo was able to speak to people at Fiat Brazil, as well as some engineering professors, and found out that the truth is that road fatalities are up, but not for the reasons people think they are.
A report by the Associated Press cites electricty savings on welding and shoddy workmanship as a key culprit behind the poor crash safety of Brazil’s cars
“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.”
Marcelo asserts that since most of the cars sold in Brazil are unibody subcompacts, this argument holds little weight. Welds are done via robot, and the process is highly standardized, with little variation. Furthermore, many Brazilian made cars are exported. Fiats are sent back to Italy, while Volkswagens are exported to Argentina, the Middle East, Russia and other locations. Any cars sold in Europe must meet strict Euro NCAP standards, and the European magazines publish the results in great detail.
Brazilian steel is also blamed due to its apparently poor quality. Marcelo asserts this is false as well. Brazil’s iron ore is a sought after commodity on the world market as well (especially in places like Australia and Brazil), and Brazil is home to ValeInco, one of the world’s leading steel producers. This is far from the Eastern European sheetmetal that was notorious for causing Fiats to rust within minutes of coming into contact with road salt. We are dealing with a globally marketed commodity that must be competitive.
Marcelo instead places the blame on the increasing number of cars on the road, piloted by first-time drivers on poorly maintained road infastructure
The professor [Marcelo's friend who is an engineering professor] also commented that while the article showed an increase of 70% in fatalities (I think that’s what the article said, I have not read it) it did not say that the market has grown more than 150% over the last 15 years. Many, many of these buyers are first time drivers. Due to credit, many people don’t have the money to buy a used car (still more expensive here than in America) but they do have credit to buy said car in 60 months.
So, first time buyer, many times the first car in the family, many times young people, a disaster is waiting to happen. The other ingredient is of course the government. Badly maintained roads, almost no police presence on streets – an over-reliance on radars, just recently a crack down on drunk driving (the limit in Brazil is now 0, yes zero), lack of signs, roads designed and engineered and built in the 60s. Plus traffic conditions lots and lots of very old, decrepit really, buses and trucks…
Of course small cars are involved in more accidents. 70% of the market in Brazil is Palio, Uno, Gol, Fox, Celta, Classic, Sandero, Logan, 208, Ka, Fiesta and derivatives. All considered subcompacts in America. Of course they are in the majority of accidents. Of course most people get killed or maimed in them. A Gol sells 30k a month, a Corolla is lucky to get 3k…
As far as crash testing goes, Marcelo admits that Brazil does have a long way to go with both crash testing standards and mandatory safety features, but notes that the country is improving.
For you to have an idea, a Renault Sandero recently crash tested did better than a Chinese JAC 3. Detail: the Sandero was not equipped with airbags or ABS and the JAC was. Brazilian built Corollas got the same results as American Corollas. Now, airbags and ABS become mandatory next year. Look for Brazilian cars to then get the same results as their first world brethren. Take an American Fusion, strip it of its airbags and it’ll get the same 1, 2 or 3 stars Brazilian cars have been getting in such tests.
Brazilian cars are sort of middle of the road. They are not deathtraps but they are not first world because they don’t have lots of active safety systems. But they do have a lot of passive systems, collapsible steering wheel columns, collapsible brake peddles, fuel cut off systems in case of accidents, crumple zones, 3 point seat belts, they are all there.
While it would be irresponsible to ignore the AP’s report out of hand, it’s worth highlighting some of the non-car related factors in Marcelo’s interview. The lack of any drunk driving regulations, the substantial amount of inexperienced drivers on poorly maintained roads with scant traffic laws and the lack of any real enforcement of the rules of the road is clearly a recipe for disaster. Whether these locally-built subcompacts are in fact death traps is another debate that I’m not comfortable wading into.
One point that nobody has raised yet is the obscene prices that Brazilian consumers pay for cars. Often times they are 2-3 times more expensive than in America. Brazilian consumers could potentially be driving inferior cars and paying through the nose for them.