SAO PAULO - The cars roll endlessly off the local assembly lines of the industry's biggest automakers, more than 10,000 a day, into the eager hands of Brazil's new middle class. The shiny new Fords, Fiats, and Chevrolets tell the tale of an economy in full bloom that now boasts the fourth largest auto market in the world.
What happens once those vehicles hit the streets, however, is shaping up as a national tragedy, experts say, with thousands of Brazilians dying every year in auto accidents that in many cases shouldn't have proven fatal.
The culprits are the cars themselves, produced with weaker welds, scant safety features and inferior materials compared to similar models manufactured for U.S. and European consumers, say experts and engineers inside the industry. Four of Brazil's five bestselling cars failed their independent crash tests.
In this March 6, 2008 photo, Ford Ka cars are assembled in Sao Bernardo do Campo, Brazil. The Ford Ka hatchback sold in Europe scored four stars when it was tested by Euro NCAP in 2008; its Latin American version scored one star.
Unsafe cars, coupled with the South American nation's often dangerous driving conditions, have resulted in a Brazilian death rate from passenger car accidents that is nearly four times that of the United States, according to an Associated Press analysis of Brazilian Health Ministry data on deaths compared to the size of each country's car fleet. In fact, the two countries are moving in opposite directions on survival rates - the U.S. recorded 40 percent fewer fatalities from car wrecks in 2010 compared with a decade before. In Brazil, the number killed rose 72 percent, according to the latest available data.
Dr. Dirceu Alves, of Abramet, a Brazilian association of doctors that specializes in treating traffic accident victims, said poorly built cars take an unnecessary toll. "The gravity of the injuries arriving at the hospitals is just ugly," he said, "injuries that should not be occurring."