Toyota’s first in safety recalls for first time

In a first, Toyota led the U.S. auto industry in recalled vehicles this year, thanks to its largest safety-related problem since it began selling vehicles in the United States.

The Japanese automaker has struggled with the fallout from the recall of 4.3 million Toyota and Lexus models for unintended acceleration linked to fatal crashes.

Toyota told federal officials earlier this month it would start fixing the vehicles now, but some repairs would not be ready until March.

According to a Detroit Free Press analysis of federal data, automakers recalled 15.2 million vehicles in 2009, a sharp jump from 8.6 million in 2008.

Safety recalls have generally declined in recent years as automakers catch problems earlier, but the totals can fluctuate widely with one or two big problems.

All three Detroit automakers also saw their count of recalled vehicles rise in 2009, even as they caught problems earlier in production.

Nearly all of Ford’s recalled models were tied to one longstanding problem with cruise control switches; absent it, the company would have hit a record low.

From misplaced labels and faulty seat-belt reminder buzzers to engine fires and broken wheels, the 117 recalls from automakers in 2009 covered a vast range of safety-related problems.

Such problems are as close as the federal government comes to tracking the quality of cars and trucks, and in years past have mirrored the quality scores from outlets such as Consumer Reports.

While automakers have stepped up their monitoring to catch problems quickly, those that get through can affect millions of consumers because of the industry’s practice of sharing parts across more models.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration tracks only those recalls that could affect safety in some way.

Automakers typically call back vehicles for other types of problems, and contend those campaigns shouldn’t be considered recalls.

That was the argument Toyota first advanced in September when it announced it was recalling 4.3 million vehicles to replace floor mats after uncontrolled acceleration problems were linked to about a dozen fatal crashes.

NHTSA quickly demanded Toyota issue a full recall, which the automaker did.

While Toyota’s accelerator problem accounted for most of the nearly 4.9 million vehicles it recalled in 2009, the automaker issued eight other recalls for problems ranging from missing safety labels to corroded pickup frames that pushed it to its top spot.

"It’s an unfortunate ranking, and certainly one Toyota doesn’t wish to have," said Celeste Migliore, spokeswoman for Toyota. "The safety of our owners and the public remain our utmost concern, and Toyota has and will take appropriate measures to correct any defect it identifies."

Ford recalled 4.5 million older cars and trucks because of a problem with cruise control switches that can catch fire, a defect the automaker has struggled with for a decade that has affected 16 million vehicles.

Outside of that recall, Ford called back just 21,993 vehicles in 2009, a minuscule total for a major automaker.

"Part of Ford’s rapid quality improvement has resulted from addressing issues sooner," said Ford spokesman Wes Sherwood. "The majority of vehicles we recalled in 2009 were older models, 10 years old on average with some more than 18 years old."

General Motors recalled 2.3 million vehicles, the third-highest total, but had the most recalls issued among automakers with 17.

"We are catching most problems before they affect large numbers of customers," said GM spokesman Alan Adler. "The important thing is to eliminate these issues and improve reliability in the view of the people who purchase our vehicles."

Chrysler’s total of 590,044 cars and trucks recalled was the lowest among the Detroit Three, but came over 16 events; outside of GM and Chrysler, no automaker had more than 10. Several of Chrysler’s and GM’s recalls covered just a few thousand vehicles.

While automakers pore over warranty data and customer complaints to catch safety problems early in production, none has proven perfect.

Of the 117 recalls, 21 were spurred by government regulators reviewing the same data automakers receive.

Five of the seven recalls issued by Hyundai were sparked by NHTSA probes, including three cases involving corrosion in so-called salt belt northern states severe enough to cause suspension problems.

(c) 2009, Detroit Free Press. Source: McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.