It was a showdown between an American Nissan and a Mexican Nissan — a contest that served as an object lesson for global tourism.
In a crash test last week near Charlottesville, Va., organized by several automotive safety groups, the two vehicles were sent speeding toward each other at a combined closing speed of 80 miles an hour. Each car conformed to its home country’s national safety standards.
Although the 2016 Nissan Versa, a model sold in the United States, sustained considerable front-end damage, the crash-test dummy at the wheel showed only minor knee injuries. But the dummy in the 2015 Nissan Tsuru, a popular model for rentals and taxis in Mexico, indicated injuries that probably would have killed a person on impact.
“It’s the worst performance I’ve ever seen,” said David Ward, who leads one of the safety groups involved in the test and referred to the Tsuru as a “deathtrap.” The Tsuru had no airbags and the main structures all failed.
“The entire body shell collapsed and the head injury rating of the dummy went off the scale,” said Mr. Ward, secretary general of the Global New Car Assessment Program, a nonprofit based in London. The test was conducted by his group and its Latin America branch, along with a United States organization, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.
When Americans rent a car in the United States, they have come to expect a certain measure of safety. But in some parts of the world, it can be a different story. The car driven at home may have many of the latest safety features, but the same make of car rented abroad may not have even the most basic ones.
“Americans travel all over the world, jump into taxis or rental cars with absolutely no idea of the level of safety,” Mr. Ward said. “There’s no guarantee they meet standards that are taken for granted in the U.S.”
Safety experts say no studies or data track safety standards or fleet purchasing policies for rental car companies from country to country. The Avis Budget Group and the Hertz Corporation, two major rental car companies, declined to comment. But there are resources to help travelers make safe choices when renting a car abroad.
A World Health Organization interactive map quickly identifies each country’s safety standards.
Mr. Ward’s group serves as an umbrella organization for new-car assessment programs around the world. Its tests are based on standards set by the United Nations and offer consumers information about the safety levels for models sold in their markets. Cars are rated from zero to five stars for the crash and collision-avoidance protection they offer.
The ratings are invaluable for tourists willing to do some research. But the group’s main goal, Mr. Ward said, is to protect the public by eliminating zero-star cars completely and persuading all major vehicle producers to meet minimum basic safety standards by 2020 in all their vehicles around the world. These include providing seat belts and adequate anchoring for them, front and side airbags and electronic stability control.
And yet, millions of new cars worldwide fail United Nations safety standards. Improvements introduced decades ago for cars sold in Europe and the United States are not found in many new models sold in middle-income countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America, and in rapidly growing lower-income markets.
“It’s a double standard” that favors high-income countries, Mr. Ward said.
The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, a trade group in Washington that represents 12 of the world’s biggest automakers, declined to comment for this article.
Some governments have started moving toward stricter auto safety standards, including Mexico, which recently changed its laws to comply with minimum United Nations standards in all models by 2020, Mr. Ward said.
Nissan Mexico announced last Wednesday, the day before the crash test, that next May it would cease production of the Tsuru.
The Latin American chapter of Mr. Ward’s group noted that Tsurus had been involved in more than 4,000 deaths on Mexico’s roads between 2007 and 2012. Despite the decision to end production, at least 15,000 more of the “potentially life-threatening model” might be sold before Nissan Mexico stops making it, the group said.
In a written statement, Nissan said that its vehicles “meet or exceed safety regulations for the markets in which they are sold.’’ The Tsuru, Nissan said, has been one of the most popular subcompact vehicles in Mexico “due to its affordability and its proven reliability.”
Currently, only 40 countries in the world have laws that apply all seven of the United Nations’ priority vehicle safety standards. (The United States is not one of them; federal rules do not require protection for pedestrians, covered by one of the standards.)
“Large numbers of the world’s population still live in countries where cars do not meet basic protection standards,” said Dr. Etienne Krug, director of the Department for Management of Noncommunicable Diseases, Disability, Violence and Injury Prevention at the World Health Organization.
Nissan is not the only target of criticism from international safety experts. Last year the Latin America chapter of the Global New Car Assessment Program published a safety performance ranking of car manufacturers in the region’s market, based on five years of crash testing of more than 60 models. It found that “General Motors is among the worst global brands in the region,” Mr. Ward said.
General Motors declined to answer specific questions about those criticisms. But “G.M. has a plan to develop a new family of smaller vehicles that will meet the rapidly changing demands of customers in Latin America and other global growth markets,’’ the company said in a statement. “The first vehicle in this family is scheduled to debut in the 2019 model year.”
Diana M. Hechler, president of D. Tours Travel in Larchmont, N.Y., said that when American cruise ship travelers arrive in a foreign country, there is often a big line in front of the Hertz or Avis stands, so they go to the counter of a local rental car company nearby with no line. “It’s usually a mistake,” she said.
Ms. Hechler recounted how she and her husband did just that several years ago on the Caribbean island of Saint Martin. After doing paperwork, they were driven to a location about 15 minutes away to collect the car.
The vehicle was in poor condition. But because they were far from town and had already paid, “we were almost captive,” she said. “It would have been better to have waited in line.”