By Luis Rojas

MEXICO CITY (Reuters) - Nissan Motor Co Ltd <7201.T> said on Wednesday it would stop production in May of the Mexican-built Tsuru, an economical and hardy sedan beloved by taxi drivers but often sold without airbags and widely criticized for its poor crash record.

A cash cow for Nissan built since the early 1980s, the Mexican Tsuru is one of the oldest car models still manufactured globally.

The Japanese company did not explain its decision, but industry experts said advances in safety and emissions standards meant it was no longer economical to produce the car sold only Mexico and Peru.

It was many Mexicans' first car and became the country's most recognizable vehicle after Volkswagen stopped production in 2003 of the Beetle that, painted green and white, was for decades Mexico's equivalent of the New York yellow cab.

"The Tsuru replaced the Beetle as a kind of emblem for Mexico City. It's another symbol of the city that comes to an end," said Ruben Ramirez, 45, a Tsuru-driving taxi driver.

Ramirez's colleague at the Mexico City taxi stand, Raul Flores, said the Tsuru was "like his home."

But the car's dismal safety record has increasingly been a focus of criticism about how automakers' standards vary between developing and developed economies.

The news came one day before the New Car Assessment Program (NCAP), a safety group, was due to crash a Tsuru into a Nissan Versa in the U.S. state of Virginia to highlight what it called the "significant difference" in safety standards between the two base line sedan models sold in different markets.

Mexico's seventh biggest seller this year, the Tsuru was involved in over 4,000 deaths there between 2007 and 2012, the safety group said in April.

A report by the group and Inter-American Development Bank published on Wednesday concluded that more than 440,000 deaths and serious injuries could be prevented, and up to $143 billion saved, if United Nations vehicle regulations were applied in Latin America.

Nissan will continue to offer services, parts and maintenance for the Tsuru after it is discontinued, the company said in a statement.

The more than 2.4 million Tsurus sold had offered "accessible, economical and trustworthy mobility for drivers" for over three decades, it added.

Nissan said its overall production volume in Mexico would not be affected by the change because it was increasing output of other models at two plants in the central state of Aguascalientes.

(Additional reporting Brad Brooks; Writing by Frank Jack Daniel; Editing by Jeffrey Benkoe and Richard Chang)