Are South Africa’s affordable cars and bakkies unsafe by international standards?

So far 19 South African vehicles have been independently crash tested through the Safer Cars For Africa campaign. Picture: Supplied.

So far 19 South African vehicles have been independently crash tested through the Safer Cars For Africa campaign. Picture: Supplied.

Published Jul 7, 2024


Is the life of an African citizen really worth less than the life of someone living in a more affluent region such as Europe?

When it comes to vehicle safety standards, it would certainly have appeared that way in the past, and may still be relevant, but there are many layers to this complex topic.

Vehicle safety advocate and crash testing authority Global NCAP hit the headlines in 2020 after staging a head-on crash test between a South African-built Nissan NP300 bakkie and a European-built Navara model. The latter literally obliterated the former, which had previously received a zero-star safety rating by the organisation.

The SA-built NP300’s bodyshell (left) was so unstable that the airbags were deemed ineffective. Picture: Supplied.

“This is a very dramatic car-to-car crash test which uniquely illustrates the double standard in vehicle safety performance between models sold in Europe and those sold in Africa,” Global NCAP President David Ward said of the Hardbody, whose driver would likely have died in a real-life collision of that nature.

The NP300 was an older design that enjoyed an extended production life in SA due to its affordability and it has since been replaced by the locally-made Navara range which is albeit more expensive due to its modernised engineering.

Yet if we dig deeper into the safety ratings attained by many of South Africa’s more affordable cars and bakkies, it would appear that all is not well.

For instance, IOL’s research shows that at least seven single cab bakkie models on the local market do not have airbags or ABS brakes; these being the Suzuki Super Carry, Hyundai H100, Kia K2700, JAC X200, Ashok Leyland Dost as well as Mahindra’s Bolero and entry-level Pik-Up. Most of these have cab-over body configurations which are hardly renowned for occupant protection.

The life of a commercial vehicle driver does not seem to matter in South Africa

Independent crash testing has shown that the fitment of front airbags, which have been mandatory in the United States since 1998, can literally mean the difference between life and death, presuming you’re wearing a seat belt too.

ALSO READ: Zero-star crash test shows why airbags are so important

Thankfully all of South Africa’s passenger car models have at least two crash bags and ABS brakes as standard, but in most cases the affordable models on our market do not match the safety standards of the equivalent offerings in more affluent markets.

Independent crash testing can be a murky water to wade as the same vehicle can have different specification levels in different markets, but Global NCAP, together with SA’s Automobile Association (AA) have shed as much light as possible through their #SaferCarsForAfrica initiative, which has crash tested 19 local vehicles between 2017 and 2022, with further tests said to be in the pipeline.

Among the current entry-level models on offer, the Renault Kwid and Suzuki S-Presso both received two stars for adult occupant protection, while the Kia Picanto and Suzuki Ignis attained three stars and the Honda Amaze and Mazda2 garnered four.

The previous-generation Hyundai i20, Renault Sandero and Volkswagen Polo Vivo all attained three stars, while the Toyota Etios was deemed good for four. The now-discontinued Chery QQ received a shocking zero star result. At the other end of the scale, the Mahindra XUV300 was the first five-star performer. See all the results in detail here.

Due to the cost and complexity of crash testing these vehicles, which are purchased randomly from local dealerships and shipped off to Germany for testing, it is not possible for all SA cars to be assessed by the UK-based charity.

However one can gain some insight into a vehicle’s structural integrity by looking at the Global NCAP tests conducted in other markets. But this comes with a huge caveat as safety features often differ between markets.

The Suzuki Swift, which is a strong seller in SA, scored one star for adult occupant protection in the latest Global NCAP test performed in India. Our Swift is sourced from India and the safety features appear similar but it’s impossible to determine the local model’s exact crash-worthiness. Still, the one-star rating is not a good sign.

A real catch-22 for buyers

Another thing to keep in mind when you’re about to make that purchase is that smaller and lighter cars will always fare worse than larger and heavier vehicles.

This was illustrated in a chilling manner in 2008 when a German magazine performed a head-on crash test between a Fiat 500, which has a five-star Euro NCAP rating, and the much larger but only four-star-rated Audi Q7. The result? The Fiat’s virtual occupants were as good as dead while the Audi’s crash test dummies appeared unscathed.

It’s a real catch-22 for buyers. Smaller and lighter vehicles are highly appealing to consumers because they’re cheaper to buy and much lighter on fuel. But there’s also a significantly higher risk of serious injury or death in a collision.

Accident-prevention technologies are also being increasingly mandated in affluent regions.

For instance all cars and vans sold in Europe must be equipped with driver assistance features such as automatic emergency braking, lane-keep assist, intelligent speed assist and reverse sensors.

And yet in South Africa, only seat belts are mandatory.

“Manufacturers will tell you they sell vehicles according to the legislation but our view is that the legislation needs to improve, and there needs to be a process to bring that into line with what is required in overseas markets,” AA spokesperson Layton Beard told IOL.

The association urges car buyers to prioritise safety features when considering their next purchase.

“Too often people look at the colour and the sound system and all the bells and whistles, but they don’t interrogate the safety aspect hard enough,” Beard added.

However a safe car is often an expensive car as every inch of structural reinforcement and every safety feature adds to the cost, often considerably.

The safe but expensive Opel Corsa.

That’s why a relatively humble European import such as the Opel Corsa Lite, a four-star Euro NCAP rated hatch that’s loaded with advanced safety features, starts at R374,900. But you can have an Indian-assembled Suzuki Swift, with two airbags, ABS and stability control, for as little as R213,900.

It takes just one glance at the local sales charts to see where buyers are gravitating.

Affordability and safety will always be a balancing act, but right now the scales appear to be tipped in a hazardous direction for many South African motorists.