Many of Brazil's top-selling cars are potential death traps when involved in collisions at moderate speeds, an independent study has found.
The findings come amid soaring road deaths as the country's growing middle class takes to the roads.
Tests by Latin NCAP (New Car Assessment Program), the regional affiliate of an organization that conducts crash safety tests for European cars, found that many basic models made in Brazil and sold throughout Latin America lacked airbags and had poorly structured cabins.
Most of these, which included models made by Volkswagen, Fiat, Chevrolet, Ford and Peugeot, scored one star out of a possible five – the second-lowest rating for safety in a head-on collision. A model from China's Geely scored zero.
"One star – that is equivalent to a dead driver," said David Ward, secretary-general of Global NCAP, backed by the FIA Foundation of the motoring organizations' body Fédération Internationale de l'Automobile.
Road deaths are rising rapidly in Brazil as car ownership grows, with the country overtaking Germany last year as the fourth-biggest market globally. Brazil's health ministry ranks the country fifth for road mortalities after India, China, the United States and Russia.
Fatalities rose by almost a quarter to 40,610 in 2010 compared with 2002 – when Brazil's economic boom took off.
"Today's best-selling cars in Latin America are providing levels of safety 20 years behind the 'five-star' standards now common in Europe and North America," Latin NCAP said in a statement.
The organization independently crash-tested the best-selling basic models built in Brazil, before accepting models from the manufacturers that included airbags. These models performed better, garnering between two and four stars.
Among the leading manufacturers, the basic version of Volkswagen's best-selling Gol 1.6 litre scored one star in the crash test, which was conducted at 64 kilometres an hour. The Gol with two airbags scored three stars – a survival rating in a collision.
Most basic models of all manufacturers also performed badly for child seats.
"Volkswagen is the pioneer in implementing a development centre for vehicle safety in Brazil," the car company said, defending its record on safety in response to the tests.
It said it had conducted its first crash test in the country in 1971. "Of course, a car without airbag does not reach the same performance in crash tests in relation to a vehicle equipped with an airbag," Volkswagen added.
Ford and GM declined to comment. Fiat and Brazil's car distributors' federation Fenabrave and the manufacturers' association Anfavea were unavailable for comment.
Mr. Ward said the problem was that cars with safety features such as airbags and antilock braking systems in Brazil and other emerging markets were priced significantly higher than those without – leading new car buyers to opt for the cheaper versions.
Latin American governments made the situation worse by not mandating basic UN crash test safety standards, although Brazil is set to introduce such measures in 2014.
"What it clearly shows is that the lack of regulation has given manufacturers no incentive to do better when they know perfectly well how they can do better," Mr. Ward said.