Latin NCAP has tested three VW models. The Gol and the Polo had stable bodies. The Bora sedan, however, was rated as unstable, though other factors helped it score three stars.
And then there are the cars the companies do not market outside Latin America, such as the Celta by GM. Celta is Brazil's No. 5 car in terms of sales, with 137,615 sold last year. It received one star after its door unhinged and the passenger cabin roof bent into an inverted V shape during its crash test.
General Motors had no comment other than to say that its cars in Brazil are legal.
An engineer for a major U.S. automaker, speaking only on condition of anonymity for fear of losing his job, said he has watched for years as his company failed to implement more advanced safety features in Brazil, simply because the law did not require them.
"''The automakers are pleased to make more profitable cars for countries where the demands, whatever they may be, are less rigorous," he said. "It happens everywhere — India, China and Russia, for example."
About 40 million Brazilians moved into the middle class during the past decade with more income than ever to buy their first car. The growth potential is enormous: One out of every seven Brazilians owns a car, while the U.S. vehicle fleet covers nearly every American.
But as auto sales boom in Brazil, so have the number of accidents and deaths.
An analysis of Health Ministry data shows that 9,059 car occupants died in vehicle crashes in Brazil in 2010, according to the most recent statistics available. That same year, 12,435 people in the U.S. were killed in car crashes, though the U.S. passenger car fleet is five times larger than Brazil's. The result: Brazilian automobile crash victims died at four times the rate as those in the U.S.
The dangers come down to basics, engineers said: the lack of body reinforcements, lower-quality steel in car bodies, weaker or fewer weld spots to hold the vehicles together and car platforms designed decades before modern safety advances.
"The electricity used in building a car is about 20 percent of the cost of the structure," said Marcilio Alves, an engineering professor at Brazil's premier University of Sao Paulo and one of the few independent researchers in the nation looking at car safety.
"If you save on electricity, you save on cost. One way to save electricity is either reducing the number of spot welds or using less energy for each spot weld made. This affects structural performance in the event of a crash."
In a car with no air bags and an unstable body structure, a driver's biggest danger is the steering wheel.
A weak body structure and fragile steering column make it easier for the wheel to slam into the driver's chest and abdomen in frontal crashes, the deadliest and most common, causing serious damage to vital organs.
Ward talks of steering wheels that break off and "float" during wrecks in poorly made cars — moving around the cabin in the driver's area. That means that even if an air bag is deployed, the steering wheel may go around or under it and directly hit the driver.
Many Brazilian car bodies also don't contain crumple zones, areas that absorb energy during wrecks. The omission endangers occupants' lower limbs, as foot wells rip off and expose feet and legs to car parts slamming into them from the front.
"If a car's body cannot absorb the energy of a crash, it will logically result in more damage, more injuries to passengers," said Alves, the doctor who specializes in traffic accident victims.
One auto engineer described the situation by sketching two car body designs with identical perimeters, but one depicted internal gaps — missing body reinforcements.
He worked three decades for Volkswagen and spent the last 10 years as an independent engineering consultant for big automakers. He asked that his name not be published for fear of losing contracts and benefits.