A couple of years back I attended a media event at a hotel near OR Tambo airport at which a global Nissan executive was wheeled out by the local Nissan crowd to announce the return of Datsun. There was‚ I suppose inevitably‚ much sniggering from the back row‚ and comments about Ouma’s 120Y.
But more serious-minded folk listened‚ because this could only mean that Nissan was in the process of creating a sub-brand‚ something that has worked wonders for other industry players such as Volkswagen and Renault. The suits in Wolfsburg would never allow the VW roundel anywhere near a cheap‚ tripped-out car‚ of course — but the Seat or Skoda badge? Sure! And Renault’s hard-won reputation for excellent chassis development and top-notch safety systems would be destroyed by putting its badge on the nose of a cheap-as-chips hatchback with little go and only limited safety systems.
But a Dacia badge? No problems there. Then Mr Datsun said the car would cost less than R100‚000. And my immediate thought was‚ well‚ so much for the Chinese invasion. It’s been a necessary process — the enduring financial woes of southern Europe have forced people to look for much more value when buying a car‚ and a surging developing-world middle class has increased dramatically the demand for solid‚ well-made but cheap cars.
And they’re everywhere. The Ford Figo‚ Honda Brio‚ Renault Sandero‚ Suzuki Swift‚ the Toyota Etios are all‚ bar the Sandero‚ built in India for India and a few export destinations. That would be places such as Russia‚ China and‚ indeed‚ little old SA‚ too. Here such things are not new. From the CitiGolf to the Polo Vivo‚ various Mazda Midges and Ford Lasers‚ to the Toyota Tazz‚ South Africans have been running around in archaic yet solid automotive technology for years.
Now the Datsun Go has arrived to join this expanding firmament of cheap cars for which there is insatiable demand — except for one rather large difference. The Go is really‚ really cheap. As in R89‚500 kind of cheap — for a car built by Nissan.
But there’s a problem. The car is available with neither airbags nor ABS‚ and last week a Global NCAP (New Car Assessment Programme) crash test undertaken by the super-reliable folks at Adac (Allgemeiner Deutscher Automobil-Club‚ a kind of German AA) indicated that the Go performs so woefully in a crash that Max Mosley‚ former president of the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile and the man behind the NCAP‚ had taken the extraordinary measure of writing to Renault-Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn asking him to withdraw the model entirely. NCAP has never before done such a thing.
Inevitably‚ questions will be raised in SA as to whether the car is suitable. Datsun has argued that in India‚ for which the car is designed‚ traffic speeds are so low as to make the crash safety matter less relevant. But what about SA‚ where we drive long distances at high speeds?
The Datsun Go is not alone. The Chery QQ3 (R88‚900) is a few rand cheaper and has neither airbags nor ABS. Neither does the Tata Indica (R89‚995)‚ and the range-bottoming Geely LC has ABS but no airbags. Certainly‚ I expect calls for the banning of the Go. And I would also ask everyone to calm down‚ to stop throwing mud at the poor Datsun PR‚ and really think about this.
What I suspect motoring journalists are forgetting is possibly the reason they got into the job in the first place. We must never‚ ever forget the power of personal mobility. We must never forget that personal mobility can translate into social mobility. You step in the way of people on the way up at your peril.
Purely in terms of safety‚ a cursory scan of our road fatality statistics will tell you that the safest place to be on a South African road is behind the wheel of your own car driven within the bounds of the law — no matter what the car. If we legislate the absolute cheapest cars off the road it’s not as if their erstwhile owners vanish too. No‚ they go out and buy a used wreck (a worse outcome‚ of course)‚ which they would be unlikely to insure. A car bought through Wesbank would have to be insured — and that too represents a better outcome. If they don’t buy a CitiGolf they’ll get to work in a HiAce (also not a great outcome in terms of safety) or‚ even worse‚ they’ll walk (35% of our road fatalities are pedestrians) or hitch a ride on the back of a bakkie (absolutely lethal).
Being subjected to public transport in SA exposes you and your children to further‚ not necessarily road-related threats — wet and cold weather‚ which makes people sick‚ children walking dangerous streets‚ the threat of violent crime‚ exposure to sickly people in cramped transport‚ and so on. Banning the Datsun Go and its Indian and Chinese ilk will not make people safer. Indeed‚ those who might have been on the cusp of car ownership will in fact be imperilled further by well-meaning paternalistic do-goodery.
For many people‚ cars are not like wine and cheese‚ something to be enjoyed and savoured. They are the key that will lift them out of a crushing lower-middle-class trap. In a car‚ the kids get driven to school and are therefore dry and safe. They can be driven to a better school near where one of the parents works. This better school might give them a shot at varsity. Consider this before banging on about airbags.
Consider the cost savings to a family with a bit‚ but not a lot‚ of money‚ of running one very cheap car versus the cost of four daily transport fares for kids and parents. Consider the productive potential of owning a car at the weekends. Consider the value of time saved‚ of knowing your kids are safely behind the school gates‚ of the societal benefit of families spending more time together.
I haven’t driven a Datsun Go and I don’t really want to. I drove a Tata Indica once and I’m still in trauma counselling. But this isn’t an argument for quality. I raise my argument in favour of the Datsun Go because I am in favour of the car as a concept. Any car is better than no car.
Please‚ please‚ don’t get in the way of these people with patrician‚ condescending concerns about a car you are probably lucky enough never to have to consider buying. It is their risk to take‚ and‚ much more important‚ their reward to reap. The car is the greatest liberator ever invented. A Datsun Go for all‚ I say.