"The difference is you're talking about somebody dead in the vehicle or dying very quickly, or somebody being able to get out of the vehicle themselves," said David Ward, director general of the London-based FIA Foundation for auto safety, which supports the Euro and Latin NCAP programs. "It's definitely a difference between life and death."
The squat 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.
Ford acknowledged that particular Ka is built on an outdated platform, and said it cannot be compared with the European version of the same name — it's that different. The company said it aims to have all its cars produced in Brazil built on updated, global platforms by 2015.
The Mexico-produced Nissan March compact sold in Latin America received a two-star rating from Latin NCAP, while the version sold for about the same price in Europe, called the Micra, scored four stars. The crash tests found the Latin American model had a weak, unstable body structure that offered occupants little protection in even non-serious wrecks.
In an emailed statement, Nissan said the March sold in Brazil is "practically the same model" offered in Europe. "The difference in the results achieved in Europe and Latin America is due to variations in the NCAP tests applied in different parts of the world."
Not so, said Alejandro Furas, technical director for the Global NCAP crash test programs.
"We perform the frontal crash test exactly in the same way as the Euro NCAP," he said. "The March and Micra were tested in the same lab, with the same type of crash test dummies, under the same conditions with the same people running the laboratory."
The Euro NCAP tests are more complete. They include side-impact and other tests, while the Latin American version only records front-impacts. Each type of impact test is individually scored on a 16-point scale.
The March sold in Brazil obtained a 7.62 rating in its frontal-impact test. The Micra fared much better, 12.7 points.
Italian automaker Fiat said in an emailed statement that "in general, Brazilian projects receive more reinforcements" within the cars' bodies to fortify them against the nation's "harsher roads and terrain."
However, NCAP tests found that Fiat's best-selling car in Brazil, called the Novo Uno, had an unstable body structure and scored it just one star.
Crash-test footage shows the front of the car folding up like an accordion, giving it a 2.0 point rating, the second lowest of the 28 cars NCAP has examined. Consumers purchased nearly 256,000 Novo Uno's last year — the second-most popular car in the country.
Renault's safety standards also vary. The French company builds its Sandero in Brazil, selling 98,400 cars last year. That car scored one star on the Latin NCAP test, but the model sold in Europe, made by Renault's Romanian subsidiary Dacia, scored three stars.
Renault said the safety record of the Sandero and its other cars were on par with autos of the same class in Brazil.
One of those is the VW Gol, Brazil's best-selling car for the last decade.
Volkswagen said it strives to maintain a global standard for body strength, putting the same number of welds on the same models regardless of where they're produced, and using high-strength steel in Brazilian cars. It added that since 1998 it's given Brazilian consumers the option of buying a car with air bags — its Gol Trend model with two frontal air bags scored three stars, while the same model without air bags scored one star.
The company didn't respond to requests for figures on how many consumers requested air bags.
"Structural integrity during a crash is a global standard for Volkswagen," the company said in an emailed statement. "The passenger compartment for the Gol remained stable and thus guarantees survival space for occupants."