Ford did use a "cost-benefit" analysis. In fact Ford cited their cost-benefit analysis as part of their legal defense (see chart below). Not only that, during testing/development stage, Ford crash tested 11 Pintos, 8 of which had test results which resulted in "potentially catastrophic situations". Basically these were fireballs. Accidents waiting to happen.
I should note however that Ford was cleared of any criminal wrong doing and that no laws were broken. It amounted to a finding by the NHTSA that the cars were deemed unsafe and a mandatory recall was issued on 1.5 million cars. Also it was a huge publicity nightmare, to say the least. Pinto production ended shortly thereafter.
You're probably right about other sub-compacts not being much safer. In general, I think that with very few exceptions safety wasn't at the top of the list for most manufactures. However, the early Toyota's, Datsun's and Honda's didn't have these issues, at least not on the scale of the Pinto. If they did, I think those companies would have faced the same scrutiny and loss of reputation. Another point I think we agree on is, filing criminal (homicide) charges against Ford was unfounded and the result of a well orchestrated smear campaign. As you probably remember the Chevy Corvair suffered a similar fate when Ralph Nader went on the attack. Independent studies eventually cleared the Corvair's name as it was deemed to be on par with other competitors with regard to safety in scenarios where the car is pushed to extremes.
At the end of the day, I think it all came down to a calculated risk for Ford when they produced the Pinto. I'd say, they lost that bet. GM faired much better.
Exhibit One: Ford's Cost/Benefit Analysis
Benefits and Costs Relating to Fuel Leakage
Associated with the Static Rollover
Test Portion of FMVSS 208
Savings: 180 burn deaths, 180 serious burn injuries, 2100 burned vehicles
Unit Cost: $200,000 per death, $67,000 per injury, $700 per vehicle
Total Benefit: 180 x ($200,000) + 180 x ($67,000) + 2100 x ($700) = $49.5 Million
Sales: 11 million cars, 1.5 million light trucks
Unit Cost: $11 per car, $11 per truck
Total Cost: 11,000,000 x ($11) + 1,500,000 x ($ I 1) = $137 Million
From Ford Motor Company internal memorandum: "Fatalities Associated with Crash-Induced Fuel Leakage and Fires."
Source: Douglas Birsch and John H. Fielder, THE FORD PINTO CASE: A STUDY IN APPLIED ETHICS. BUSINESS, AND TECHNOLOGY. p. 28.1994.