Auto Safety Recalls Down in 2006

Detroit Free Press

January 8, 2007

Automakers slashed the number of cars and trucks recalled in the United States in 2006 by 38%, as General Motors Corp. and Ford Motor Co. made good on pledges to reduce safety-related defects in their vehicles.

A Free Press analysis of federal data suggests that automakers have become more adept at catching problems earlier in production, before they affect a large number of customers. But their systems are far from perfect: Government investigations sparked many of the largest recalls last year.

GM's recalls declined by 73% from a year earlier, while Ford's fell 71%. The Chrysler Group had the most recalls in the industry, with 2.3 million vehicles called back in 27 separate recall notices, triple the volume from 2005, when it recalled 765,777 vehicles in nine cases.

The analysis found that the U.S. auto industry overall recalled 10.6 million vehicles in 2006, a decrease of 6.5 million vehicles from a year earlier and a third of the total from 2004. The number of recalls issued by automakers fell to 143, from 163 in 2005.

While most major automakers had fewer recalls, a few saw their defects worsen, including Chrysler, Nissan Motor Co. and Volkswagen AG.

In previous years, industry recalls fluctuated wildly as automakers, safety regulators and owners grappled with problems that often affected millions of vehicles built over several years. But as automakers have made quality control a top priority, testing and early reports of problems have limited the scope of most recalls.

Since the Free Press reported on the surge in Chrysler recalls in August, the company has issued 11 more recalls, and federal regulators have nine defect investigations open on Chrysler vehicles?more than for any other automaker. The recall problems range from faulty suspension parts and lock-prone antilock brakes to hoods that could fly open while motorists are driving. Six of the recalls involved 2007 models.

Chrysler spokesman Max Gates said the automaker had several programs in place aimed at reducing recalls through making improvements in factories or by working with suppliers. Gates also said some of Chrysler's recalls were for software upgrades that cause a minimal disruption to owners.

"We believe we are being more vigilant, catching potential safety issues early before large numbers of vehicles are affected, and more importantly, before our customers are affected," Gates said.

Ford was second among automakers with recalls, with 1.7 million vehicles recalled, while GM tallied nearly 1.4 million _ both sharp declines from 2005, when Ford led the industry with 6 million recalled vehicles, and GM had nearly 5 million. The two companies also sell more cars in the United States than other automakers.

Ford had the largest recall in 2005, involving 1.2 million vehicles with cruise-control switches that could cause fires. Spokeswoman Kristen Kinley said that outside of that issue, the automaker had far smaller recalls because it caught problems before the vehicles left the factory or while many were sitting on dealers' lots.

The decline "was part of a strategy," she said. "It's getting to the issues earlier in the process and really monitoring our evaluation of the data and the information we get from the field."

GM spokesman Alan Adler said GM's records showed its recalls at their lowest level in seven years. "Our vehicle quality is on par with the best in the industry, a reality that needs to catch up with some outdated perceptions," he said.

Nissan issued 16 recalls in 2006, covering nearly 1.3 million cars and trucks, after calling back 709,838 vehicles in nine recalls last year. Of the 16 recalls, all but two involved 2006 and 2007 models, including one problem with piston rings in 2006 Altima and Sentra sedans that forced Nissan to replace an entire engine for some customers.

Doug Betts, Nissan's senior vice president for customer satisfaction, said the company was not satisfied with the volume of its recalls, "and we will focus on a driving our trend in the direction of zero."

Under federal rules, recalls tracked by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration involve only safety-related problems. Any other recall made by an automaker?such as Toyota Motor Co.'s decision last month to call back 220,000 SUVs to fix a faulty "check engine" light?doesn't count.

Toyota recalled 814,507 vehicles in 2006 by NHTSA's data, nearly two-thirds less than a year earlier.

Honda Motor Co. had a recall affecting nearly 1.2 million vehicles because it printed the wrong phone numbers for NHTSA in its manuals; the number it printed led callers to a phone-sex line. Outside of that gaffe, the company recalled only 1,397 vehicles this year for mechanical problems, the best performance of any large automaker.

David Champion, senior director of the Consumer Reports automotive test center, said automakers have improved their computer modeling and worked more closely with suppliers to find problems before production.

That said, new models still tend to have more problems than older ones, and the industry's drive to push out more every year can create trouble, he said.

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