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Forget what the car ads say - the truth is in the crash test

How outraged should we be about how four top selling South African cars did in the latest Global New Car Assessment crash test? In the case of the Nissan NP300 double-cab bakkie, in particular, VERY, says Wendy Knowler.

car crash test picture
Supplied: Wendy Knowler

Listen to the details here, or read the web version under the podcast.

In the case of the Nissan NP300 double-cab bakkie, in particular, VERY.

The body shell of that “made in SA” bakkie - ironically called the “Hardbody” and marketed as “African Tough” - collapsed in a crash test conducted in Munich two months ago by renowned car safety organisation Global New Car Assessment Programme (NCAP).

As a result, the bakkie was given a safety rating for adults of zero stars - because of the “poor protection” it offered to the driver’s head and chest” - and two stars for the young children strapped into car seats in the back. 

READ: Durban’s drivers are the dodgiest

Global NCAP and its South African partner in its Safer Cars For Africa initiative revealed that shocking rating at a joint press conference in Jo’burg last Friday. 

David Ward, secretary general of Global NCAP, said: “The occupant compartment completely failed to absorb the energy of the crash, resulting in a high risk of fatality or injury. The NP300 ‘Hardbody’ is ridiculously misnamed as its body shell has collapsed.”

Nissan responded by saying: “The safety of our customers is Nissan’s top priority. All our cars meet or exceed regulations in all countries in which they are sold.”

And the manufacturer is right. 

South Africa has very little in the way of regulation of car safety features, and that, coupled with relatively little awareness among South Africans about safety features, leads to manufacturers stripping out some of the lifesaving safety features of the cars they sell in the US, Europe, and Australia in the cars destined for SA.

NCAP
Supplied: Wendy Knowler

And that’s why Global NCAP’s work is so vital for us.

The NP300 bakkie could never go on sale in Europe and several other countries.. Like the hatchbacks the Hyundai i20, the Toyota Yaris and the Kia Picanto, which were also crash tested in Munich, it doesn’t have electronic stability control - ESC - an anti-skid safety feature - which is thought to have saved as many lives as the seatbelt. 

In fact, if my research is accurate, only two cars selling for less than R200,000 in South Africa have ESC - the Renault Sandero and the VW UP!

Yet, it’s been mandatory since November 2014 for all new cars sold in the European Union to have ESC.

As for how those three hatchbacks did in the crash tests, all three scored an acceptable three stars for adult protection, and both the Picanto and i20 scored two stars for child protection. The Yaris, the only hatchback with three-point seatbelts in all five seats, scored three stars for child protection.

Disturbingly, of the four vehicles crash tested, only the Picanto was found to have a stable body shell. The others were unstable, meaning with any more pressure - that would be a crash at speeds higher than the test’s 64 km/hr - the cars would horribly deform.

So what does the AA think about those results?  Spokesman Layton Beard, who witnessed both the Yaris and the i20 smashing into that barrier in the crash facility in Munich, had this to say:

“What we know is that different cars are sold in different markets, and a car with a certain safety rating in one market will not have that same safety rating in another.

“It's incumbent on the person buying that vehicle to do their own research and find if that vehicle has been tested in SA and if so what the rating is. If the SA car hasn’t been crash tested, they need to do some further research into what safety is available on that vehicle.”

In other words, a car that got a four or five star safety rating in an NCAP crash test in Europe or Australia may very well be a very different car under the skin in SA.

It was immediately obvious to the NCAP team, even before the dummies and the wreckage were examined, that the body shells of the SA hatchbacks were less robust than that of their European counterparts.

And the spec lists of the seemingly identical local vs European cars show a radical difference in safety spec.

A version of the Hyundai i20, for example, is sold in Europe with ESC as a standard feature, along with six airbags (as opposed to two in the SA model) and autonomous emergency braking.

And it sells for less than 11,000 Euro, compared with the equivalent of about 14,000 Euro for the South African version which has just two airbags and ABS brakes.

No vehicle should be sold anywhere in 2018 without electronic stability control (ESC) and both front and side airbags as the minimum safety equipment, says Global NCAP.

The organisation’s technical director, Alejandro Furas, says the manufacturers are taking advantage of those consumers in emerging markets’ lack of knowledge about vehicle safety features.

Key safety features such as ESC should not be optional extras or only available on the most expensive version of a particular model, which is common on the local market, says the AA’s Layton Beard. 

“They must be standard features on the cheapest model, and make the “infotainment”-type features the optional extras.

"The solution to the manufacturers putting cars with poor safety spec for sale in SA lies in consumer awareness and activism," Furas said.

“We expect that as we test more cars in developing countries, and the media publishes our findings, which get shared on social media, consumers will start demanding better safety.”

Last word goes to Layton Beard.

“The most important thing that we’d like to see happen is that consumers pay more attention to the safely of vehicles, not only to the way the vehicle looks not only to what the interior offers them, but to what the safety of those vehicle is and how it’s going to protect them and their families in the event of a crash. 

"We can’t just rely on government to do all of that as consumers, it’s our responsibly to take our safety into our own hands, and one important way we do that is to by looking at the safety ratings of vehicles and looking at the safety it offers before we purchase them.”

I had an opportunity to witness a live crash demonstration. Watch below: 

For regular updates follow Wendy Knowler on Facebook. 

In case you missed any of the past Consumerwatch shows, find them below:

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