General Motors Co. is facing calls to add air bags as standard equipment on its popular compact cars in Mexico, reflecting broader pressure on big auto makers to include basic safety equipment in their vehicles even when governments don’t require it.
Four American consumer-advocacy groups, including Consumer Reports and Public Citizen, have sent a letter to GM Chief Executive Mary Barra calling on the company to make air bags a standard feature globally. At least one of those groups said the company hasn’t responded.
“Auto safety cannot only be for citizens living in wealthy countries,” the U.S. consumer groups wrote in their letter to GM’s Ms. Barra. “Yet GM’s practice of providing some consumers with the best safety technologies, while not even providing air bags to others, strikes us as a morally indefensible decision.”
Light-vehicle sales in Mexico have increased 19% through November 2015, making it among the fastest-growing emerging markets for autos. GM, which is No. 2 in sales there after Nissan Motor Co., sells that country’s most popular passenger car, the Chevrolet Aveo, but offers air bags only as an option, which many buyers choose to go without.
Latin America’s independent New Car Assessment Program recently assigned the Aveo zero stars in a crash test, calling the vehicle “unstable” with “a high risk of life threatening injuries.”
Ms. Barra has been under pressure to clean up GM’s safety image after a crisis over faulty ignition switches linked to dozens of deaths and injuries in the U.S. The crisis clouded the early days of her tenure and cost the auto maker billions of dollars in penalties and other damages.
Praised by the Justice Department and others for taking swift action in the ignition-switch case, Ms. Barra has said the company will use its focus on safety technology to race forward in developing self-driving vehicles and gaining market share in certain emerging markets where it is underrepresented. Adding air bags as standard equipment in Mexico could be a relatively cheap step in that direction.
Independent health and safety organizations put the cost of adding a pair of air bags at between $100 and $150, and many auto makers in other markets have found that car buyers, who have an increasing choice of vehicles, generally welcome the devices. Like Mexico, many Latin American nations don’t perform their own crash tests or have safety rules that mirror the standards in developed markets such as the U.S.
GM’s best-selling Aveo is the centerpiece of its lineup in Mexico, with the Detroit auto maker selling over 66,000 of the cars there in 2015. The Aveo accounts for about 40% of GM’s Mexico sales and 8.5% of the entire Mexican passenger-car market, according to WardsAuto.com.
Pressure to make air bags standard isn’t limited to GM or the Mexican market. Many companies, including Nissan, have been criticized for not offering air bags in India, where safety regulations are lacking. But the biggest sellers in India, which is about three times the size of the Mexico market, have begun adding the devices in advance of stricter government standards being phased in between 2017 and 2020.
In a recent interview, Ms. Barra said GM aims to use safety technology to set itself apart in India, where it currently is a niche player.
The GM spokesman said the company is committing to invest USD $5 billion to develop a new car for emerging markets, including India and Mexico, that has standard front and side air bags, but that car isn’t due until the 2019 model year.
While Latin NCAP Secretary General Alejandro Furas said zero-star vehicle ratings are common in Latin America because of a lack of government oversight, he singled out GM for delivering consistently poor results since the group began testing cars in 2010.
“Chevrolet has consistently performed badly in our tests over the last five years in high selling models,” he said.
Latin NCAP, which tests the version of a car model with the most basic safety equipment available, ranks GM below all other auto makers on safety except for some Chinese brands.
GM installs air bags in every Aveo and other vehicles exported to the U.S. and other markets that require them, according to Stephan Brodziak, a vehicle-safety expert at Poder del Consumidor, a consumer-advocacy group based in Mexico City.
About 80% of Mexican-made light vehicles are exported, mostly to the U.S. Installing two air bags in a vehicle costs manufacturers about $100, Mr. Brodziak said.
Mr. Furas said other manufacturers have added air bags as standard equipment after failing Latin NCAP’s crash test. He pointed to Nissan, which stopped offering its Tiida and Sentra sedans without air bags in Mexico after both models received zero stars from the organization.
Dudley Althaus contributed to this article.
Write to Gautham Nagesh at firstname.lastname@example.org
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