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Mexico's booming car industry selling unsafe cars


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http://autos.ca.msn.com/news/canadian-press-automotive-news/mexicos-booming-car-industry-selling-unsafe-cars-1

RAMOS ARIZPE, Mexico - In Mexico's booming auto industry, the cars rolling off assembly lines may look identical, but how safe they are depends on where they're headed.

Vehicles destined to stay in Mexico or go south to the rest of Latin America carry a code signifying there's no need for antilock braking systems, electronic stability control, or more than two air bags, if any, in its basic models.

If the cars will be exported to the United States or Europe, however, they must meet stringent safety laws, including as many as six to 10 air bags, and stability controls that compensate for slippery roads and other road dangers, say engineers who have worked in Mexico-based auto factories.

Because the price of the two versions of the cars is about the same, the dual system buttresses the bottom lines of automakers such as General Motors and Nissan. But it's being blamed for a surge in auto-related fatalities in Mexico, where laws require virtually no safety protections.

"We are paying for cars that are far more expensive and far less safe," said Alejandro Furas, technical director for Global New Car Assessment Program, or NCAP, a vehicle crash-test group. "Something is very wrong."

In 2011, nearly 5,000 drivers and passengers in Mexico died in accidents, a 58 per cent increase since 2001, according to the latest available data from the country's transportation department. Over the same decade, the U.S. reduced the number of auto-related fatalities by 40 per cent. The death rate in Mexico, when comparing fatalities with the size of the car fleet, is more than 3.5 times that of the U.S.

Nevertheless, Mexico hasn't introduced any safety proposals other than general seat belt requirements for its 22-million strong auto fleet. Even then, the laws don't mandate three-point shoulder belts necessary to secure child safety seats.

Brazil and Argentina, on the other hand, have passed laws requiring all vehicles to have dual front air bags and antilock braking systems by next year.

An Associated Press investigation this year found that Brazil's auto plants produce cars aimed at Latin American consumers that lack basic safety features. Like Brazil, Mexico doesn't run its own crash test facility to rank cars' safety before they hit the road.

Dr. Arturo Cervantes Trejo, director of the Mexican Health Ministry's National Accident Prevention Council, said the country has a long way to go to upgrade safety standards, but challenging the nation's $30 billion auto industry could be difficult.

"It's a complicated subject because of the amount of money carmakers bring to this country. The economy protects them," Cervantes told the AP. "But there are plans, there is a strategy. We have a working group with the car industry."

Auto plants cover a swath of central Mexico, cranking out about 3 million cars a year while lifting into the middle class auto hubs in the states of Aguascalientes and Puebla. In a matter of a few years, Mexico has become the world's fourth biggest auto exporter, despite having no homegrown brands, and the country's car fleet doubled between 2001 and 2011, the latest national figures show.

In fact, consumers in "first-world" countries are paying the same or even less for safer cars.

For example, basic versions of Mexico's second most popular car, the Nissan Versa, made in central Aguascalientes, come with two air bags, but without electronic stability control systems, which use sensors to activate brakes when a car loses control.

The sticker price of the newer generation of the sedan comes to $16,000. The U.S. version of the same car has six air bags in the front, on the sides and mounted in the roof, in addition to an electronic stability control system. That sticker price is about $14,000.

Similarly, the basic version of the Chevrolet Aveo, which has been revamped and renamed Sonic, sells for about $14,000 in the U.S. and comes with 10 air bags, antilock brakes and traction control. Its Mexican equivalent, the country's top-selling car, doesn't have any of those protections and costs only $400 less.

Nissan Mexicana spokesman Herman Morfin said in a statement it is "common practice" to add different features, depending on the intended market.

"Because there are many choices of specifications and equipment, specific marketing strategies by country, in addition to the tax difference among countries, states and cities, also including transportation and delivery costs, it's not possible to make a direct comparison among vehicles sold in each market, based on the list price published on the Web," Morfin said.

Morfin said two of Nissan's most popular models — the Versa and the Sentra — are packaged with two air bags and an antilock braking system, which is more than what's required by the Mexican government.

While GM declined repeated requests to comment, an engineer who headed a manufacturing division at the company in Mexico until last year said the company saved on costs by not adding safety features.

"For the company to make more net profit and so that cars are sold at more affordable prices, we would toss aside some accessories. Air bags, ABS brakes, those were the first to go," the engineer said. He spoke on condition of anonymity, citing a confidentiality agreement with the company.

Three other engineers who worked with Nissan and GM for four years and are still involved in auto design for other carmakers were interviewed on similar conditions of anonymity, and they confirmed the companies built cars with vastly different safety features depending on where they'd be sold.

The U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said air bags and electronic stability control have prevented tens of thousands of injuries in auto accidents and reduced fatal crashes by as much as a third in the U.S.

Paco de Anda, the director of the Mexican chapter for the accident-prevention group Safe Kids, said Latin American consumers have to pay extra for those protections.

"Features that are already mandatory in other countries, here they are selling them as optional items," De Anda said. "People here have no education about road safety ... so they don't pay for it."

A GM worker who gets paid $100 a week said people in Latin America cannot afford to buy cars that are fully loaded with safety features.

"We're not first-world countries," said the worker, who asked not to be identified because he was afraid of losing his job at the GM plant in the town of Ramos Arizpe, where Chevrolet Sonics, Cadillac SRXs and Captiva SUVs are assembled.

Yet crash test results show exactly what's being sacrificed for savings.

One of Nissan's most popular models in Mexico, the Tsuru, is so outdated it has only lap seat belts in the back and some versions have no air bags at all. The car is not sold in the U.S. or Europe.

At a recent Latin NCAP crash test presentation, the Tsuru's driver's door ripped off upon impact at only 37 mph. Its roof collapsed and the steering wheel slammed against the crash test dummy's chest. The Tsuru scored zero stars out of a possible five.

When asked about the crash test, Nissan representatives replied in an email that "consumers continue to ask for it because of its durability, reliability and affordability," without responding specifically to the test results. More than 300,000 Tsurus have been sold in Mexico in the past six years, at about $10,000 each.

Carlos Gomez and his wife Diana Martinez were driving their two small children in a red Tsuru from their northern Mexican town of Doctor Arroyo across the length of Mexico to Chiapas state for Holy Week holidays in March. The sky turned dark as they neared central Mexico, and less than 250 miles from home they were hit head-on by a drunken driver in a red Ford Ranger pickup truck.

The couple died from chest and head injuries; the steering wheel struck Gomez's chest and the dashboard crushed his wife's head. The children survived but spent weeks in the hospital. Six-year-old Carlos still wears a cast from the waist down. He cannot walk.

"Their car was way worse off than the car the other boy was driving," said the mother's brother, Agustin Martinez. "We want more robust cars."

The family said the investigation didn't determine whether air bags would have saved the parents' lives, but there was an air bag in the truck that struck them. The driver was not injured.

Furas, of Global NCAP, said changing automaker behaviour will require the region's few watchdog groups and especially government regulators to apply far more pressure on automakers.

Volkswagen, for one, began adding two air bags to its Clasico model after the German carmaker learned that Latin NCAP was going to choose the car for crash testing because of its popularity, Furas said. The model sold in Europe and the U.S. as Jetta comes standard with six air bags.

"Mexico has to take a good look at itself, at the problems it's facing," Furas said. "It is selling unsafe cars to its own people, when it can be selling safe cars that it can build."

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Would we call pretty much all US made and Canadian made cars "unsafe" from before 1998? The supposedly "unsafe" Mexican-made cars (Nissans, Toyotas, and Hondas) described in the original article still have better crumple zones than older US cars, and even the cheapest ones have 2 airbags, which didn't necessarily happen in the USA until they were required in 1998.

Even cheap Mexican-made cars described in the original article (Nissans, Hondas and Toyotas) have 2 airbags and good 3 point seat belts. Mid-price and more expensive models sold in Mexico have all the safety bells and whistles as their NOB versions. It is the cheaper models sold in Mexico have no electronic stability control and possibly no ABS. In 9 years of driving in Mexico, I have never had the ABS kick in even once. Electronic stability control is only a fairly recent common addition (2007?).

It is a bummer that the Mexican car dealers don't pass along the savings for having fewer of the most recent added safety features. Ironically, Mexico still has lower rates of traffic fatalities per 100,000 people than the USA: 13.1 traffic deaths for Mexico vs 13.9 deaths per 100,000 for the USA for the most recently reported years.

The Germans and Swedes are down at about 5 traffic deaths per 100,000, which seems to point to driving habits and big SUV's and big pickup trucks as possibly being bigger factors.

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Can't comment on the differences in safety features, though all should keep in mind that the MXN "sticker price" includes 16% IVA, the US one does not.....making the MX model equal or lower in price based on the figures given in the article.

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Most of our driving years were without seatbelts, padded dashboards, etc, etc. We did not die, as speeds were lower and we drove much further apart in lighter traffic.

Today, folks are going 80mph in very heavy traffic, texting, talking, listening to music and otherwise distracted. Then, there is the road rage factor.

Ugh! Let us not blame it on the cars.

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I have unfortunately spent some time in the Ford angency in Guadalajara. The cars have stickers which say for sale in Mexico only. I have not priced new cars in the U. S. but, these cars here seem pricey to me. By the way the service in Palencia Ford sucks...

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If you remove the Old Nissan Sentra (Tsuru) and Nissan hardbody pickup, prices would go up. These cars have all there tooling paid for and sell for a very good price here. Both of these vehicles were sold in the US for many year and did very well up north. If you want to sell the Mexicans all our safety stuff they probably can't afford it. For the folks who need the modern stuff they sell it here also. Nissan Sentra/Versa and Nissan Frontier pickup trucks have all the latest features however they have a very modern price! If you want the newer stuff what is the problem as it is sold here? Mexicans prefer the simple anybody can fix it type cars at a good price. Mexicans have a choice what

to buy we don't in USA and Canada. This is a much better system for me. You want 10 airbags buy the new sold

in Mexico Sentra but you will probably pay 1000 dollars more just for all the additional airbags and other safety stuff over the Standard two airbags in the front sold in the older designed cars. I drive a 97 Nissan Micra which has

two airbags, some beams in doors and an engine that drops down in an accident. Good enough for me and I like

having a choice on what I buy and how much I want to spend on safety. You may make a different decision based

on your situation and budget.

Viva Mexico!

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If you remove the Old Nissan Sentra (Tsuru) and Nissan hardbody pickup, prices would go up. These cars have all there tooling paid for and sell for a very good price here. Both of these vehicles were sold in the US for many year and did very well up north. If you want to sell the Mexicans all our safety stuff they probably can't afford it. For the folks who need the modern stuff they sell it here also. Nissan Sentra/Versa and Nissan Frontier pickup trucks have all the latest features however they have a very modern price! If you want the newer stuff what is the problem as it is sold here? Mexicans prefer the simple anybody can fix it type cars at a good price. Mexicans have a choice what

to buy we don't in USA and Canada. This is a much better system for me. You want 10 airbags buy the new sold

in Mexico Sentra but you will probably pay 1000 dollars more just for all the additional airbags and other safety stuff over the Standard two airbags in the front sold in the older designed cars. I drive a 97 Nissan Micra which has

two airbags, some beams in doors and an engine that drops down in an accident. Good enough for me and I like

having a choice on what I buy and how much I want to spend on safety. You may make a different decision based

on your situation and budget.

Viva Mexico!

I also appreciate the flexibility and choices Mexico still offers but more and more they are changing to these "modern" factors and regulations.

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Can't comment on the differences in safety features, though all should keep in mind that the MXN "sticker price" includes 16% IVA, the US one does not.....making the MX model equal or lower in price based on the figures given in the article.

How can it be equal or lower since if the vehicle is bought in the U.S. it won't have the 16% IVA? In Texas I think it is still a 4% state sales tax on vehicles. Even if they are the exact sales price, the U.S. models have several thousand dollars more equipment installed.

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(sigh)

Price w/o tax.....

When you back out 16% IVA from 16,000, you get 13,793 MX price; the US price before tax was "about 14,000". Close enough.

I had stated I wasn't commenting on the safety features in my post, you can't do anything about that in either country any more than you can get around the taxes on buying a new car.

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(sigh)

Price w/o tax.....

When you back out 16% IVA from 16,000, you get 13,793 MX price; the US price before tax was "about 14,000". Close enough.

I had stated I wasn't commenting on the safety features in my post, you can't do anything about that in either country any more than you can get around the taxes on buying a new car.

(sigh)

Yes, I understood what you wrote about the tax but if you buy the vehicle in Mexico you are paying the tax so it isn't cheaper, get it? You also get less in safety equipment. I estimate that to be a few thousand dollars. Just because you can take off the 16% tax to compare the prices, you are still paying much more in Mexico which includes the tax and less safety equipment. (sigh.)

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If you reside in Mexico, you will be buying a car in Mexico, sooner or later. In the USA, well over 2 million domestic cars really arent all that domestic; they were made in Mexico and another couple of million were made in Canada. In both cases, the dealers brag that they were made, right here in America; true, on the North American Continent. Roughly five million cars are made in either Canada or Mexico for sale in the USA, with another 7+ million actually made in the USA; many of which are by Asian or European makes; not the big three US makers.

The latest addition to Mexican auto plants will be the new Audi plant, near the big VW plant. Of course, Daimler Benz makes Mercedes and Freightliner in Mexico, so you have options way beyond the model choices in the USA, as mentioned above. As an example, compare the models available on Volkswagen.com with Volkswagen.com.mx and you may be surprised at what you can buy. The same is true for other makes.

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I have an old Suburban that was made in Mexico for the U.S. market. It might have been made in Mexico but it was made with U.S. standards or the standards required at that time.

The point of the OP is that vehicles made in MX for the MX market do not have the same safety standards and cost the same or more for the lack of safety standards. Why pay almost the same for less?

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The cars with fewer air bags mentioned in the original AP article are all the cheap, stripped-down, low-end models of Toyota, Nissan, Honda, Chevy, and VW. The safety features of ECS and additional air bags are standard on mid-range and more expensive vehicles. Even on the cheap models the latest safety features are available, but at added cost.

The point of the article is that the cheap models manufactured for the Mexican market are sometimes sold without ABS, ESC, and fewer airbags. Why do the Japanese, German, and American car companies charge more in Mexico for their cheap cars with less equipment?

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Taking a taxi last year in the hell-traffic that is Monterrey: I commented that there were no seat belts and the driver responded "oh, that's ok, you don't have to wear them here!" That's the attitude towards safety here. Not to mention the number of children seen riding the front of 4 wheelers, bicycles, motorcycles.... So why would a costly vehicle need to be safe?

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