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 behavior 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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