NEW DELHI (AFP) - The Tata Nano, billed as the world's cheapest car, and a host of other top-selling small models from India have failed their first independent crash tests, a global safety group said Friday.
The five entry-level vehicles - including the country's best-selling small car the Suzuki-Maruti Alto 800, as well as the Ford Figo, the Hyundai i10 and the Volkswagen Polo - scored no stars out of five for protection.
The tests, carried out by the New Car Assessment Programme (NCAP), saw the basic models, all without airbags, driven at 64 kilometres an hour into a block simulating a head-on collision.
The secretary general of Global NCAP called them "gratuitously dangerous" and blamed lax regulation which created an incentive to make cheap but structurally unsound vehicles for India's accident-prone roads.
"The injury recordings on the dummy, on the head, chest, and upper legs, they're in the red. The chances of surviving a crash are extremely low. It's either death or very serious injury," Mr David Ward told AFP.
He said trials in recent years in Latin America had shown similar problems but manufacturers there have begun to make progress thanks in part to adverse publicity.
China too has begun imposing higher safety standards.
NCAP also tested the Indian cars in a crash simulation according to United Nations standards - a frontal collision at the slightly slower speed of 56 kilometres an hour - and none of them passed.
"It's worrying to see levels of safety that are 20 years behind the five-star standards now common in Europe and North America," said Global NCAP chairman Max Mosley, the former chief of international motorsport.
Small vehicles are the biggest segment of the price-sensitive Indian car market, which is coveted by global brands and domestic manufacturers as working-class consumers upgrade from two- to four-wheelers.
The country's roads are famously chaotic and among the most dangerous in the world.
Around 140,000 people were killed in road accidents in 2012, which works out to 16 an hour, according to the government's National Crime Records Bureau.
The NCAP said the five vehicles it tested accounted for about 20 per cent of all new cars sold in India annually.
The Tata Nano was the brainchild of the former boss of the Tata conglomerate Ratan Tata who wanted a cheap car for the masses. But it has flopped since its launch in 2009, partly due to poor marketing.
Tata said its cars passed "all Indian safety regulations, including the frontal barrier crash test at 48 kilometres an hour," while Maruti Suzuki had no immediate reaction.
Hyundai said its "vehicles are designed and built to meet all the prescribed safety standards set by Indian Regulatory Authorities".
Ford said safety was "one of the highest priorities in the design of our vehicles".
"We are monitoring the progress of this review and will work with Indian authorities, GNCAP and the other relevent stake holders as appropriate," a Ford spokesperson said.
The NCAP tested only the basic models of the cars in question and it said the Figo and Polo would provide much better protection if fitted with airbags, which were an optional extra.
But the Nano, the i10 and the Alto had "inadequate" structures that meant that even air bags would "not be effective in reducing the risk of serious injury".
Volkswagen said it had withdrawn its Polo model without airbags and it stressed that the with-airbags version was certified as the safest in the segment.