Is it a global conspiracy, or just a necessary disparity in production techniques? Let's discuss.
In a recent article by Autocar, Global NCAP stated that similar cars in different markets perform differently in crash tests - and even insinuated that local testing standards in different regions vary in terms of stringency and strictness. Their evidence lies in the fact that certain global models - for example, the Renault Kwid - score just two stars in Global NCAP testing.
That being said, the variant of the Kwid sold in Africa and India are even worse than the one sold in Brazil (which scored two stars), as these models don't have as much structural reinforcement in the A-pillars of the chassis. All of these points are pretty alarming, as is the figure that over 90% of the 1.3 million annual road deaths globally are attributed to cars sold in lower-income markets (i.e. structurally weak cars).
But let's take a look at things for a moment. First of all, there is a bit of a logical leap required because the driving conditions in these countries can be significantly different. Malaysia has a particularly high accident rate, and at much higher speeds than other countries because - well, Malaysian drivers. But going to a marginally stronger car isn't going to resolve this, short of everyone buying a Volvo and throwing caution to the wind.
The second is that NCAP testing also tends to favour cars with Advanced Driver Assistance Systems (ADAS), and to get a full five-star rating in many cases require you to have these systems in place - a big leap from just the all-round airbags and electronic driver aids that used to be the gold standard. You can see it in the fact that almost every car across every market segment has some form of ADAS installed.
Unfortunately, these ADAS systems are heavily reliant on the driving conditions and the drivers being somewhat predictable or falling into line. It works in countries with more disciplined drivers such as the United States or Germany, but in Malaysia, we hardly have properly painted lane lines, we have drivers who erratically change lanes, and we have ever changing road and weather conditions. ADAS systems would be a half measure here.
What is most important is to educate drivers properly, to severely revamp the driving syllabus, and to look at improving drivers holistically - not just in terms of road manners, but understanding and car control. The average Swedish teenager has far better car control in any condition than even seasoned drivers here, who slow down to a snail's pace in the wet. This discipline and fidelity mean that even ADAS is only needed as a backup when the driver is truly distracted or impaired.
Ultimately, there's no doubt that cars sold in different markets are simply built differently. You can feel it with the levels of refinement, the materials used, and obviously, this also filters down into the very construction of a car. But rather than complain about it or force automakers to improve construction (which drives prices up even higher), we should look at making drivers safer.
It's also highly unlikely that we can move people into newer cars - especially with the economy taking such a large hit and people struggling to get by. Even if you were to improve the safety standards of cars you can currently buy, you aren't going to do much for the vast majority of people who will inevitably buy cars secondhand, from a time before ADAS was even an acronym.