Automakers can claim the dubious achievement of recalling more vehicles in the United States this year than ever before, though analysts and other observers say the record is more a result of the increasing complexity of cars and trucks and greater vigilance than a lapse in quality.
Led by General Motors Corp., the world’s largest automaker, manufacturers have recalled about 25 million vehicles in 2004, topping the previous high of 24.6 million in 2000, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which oversees recalls for the government.
GM alone has recalled 10.5 million vehicles in North America -- the vast majority in the United States -- up from 7.8 million in 2003 and 5.7 million in 2002, the company said. Japan’s No. 1 automaker, Toyota Motor Corp., said it had recalled about 890,000 vehicles in the United States this year, four times as many as in 2003.
Experts offer several reasons for the ballooning numbers: federal guidelines that require companies to report more defect data to the NHTSA, vehicles that rely more heavily on computers and electronics, the growing practice of sharing common parts among a larger number of models, and more safeguards at litigation-sensitive automakers to catch flaws earlier.
In some instances it’s a Catch-22 for automakers, which are adding intricate safety features to a broader range of vehicles but at the same time adding to the complexity of what people drive.
Honda Motor Co.'s American arm, for example, is recalling 257,616 Accord sedans from the 2004 and 2005 model years because the driver’s air bag may not deploy properly, the NHTSA said last week.
“New functionality always presents new complexity, and complexity means more ways to fail,” said Joe Ivers, executive director of quality at J.D. Power & Associates, which rates vehicles annually on initial quality and longer-term dependability.
Analysts say the rising number of recalls, most of which are initiated by automakers themselves, and the high volume of vehicles involved shouldn’t be considered an indictment of overall vehicle quality, which has risen in recent years.
The average initial quality of new cars and trucks has climbed significantly in the last year, J.D. Power said in April, and each of Detroit’s automakers showed year-over-year improvement. GM fared best among the Big Three, while Toyota, coupled with its Lexus luxury brand, repeated as the company with the highest overall initial quality.
J.D. Power’s initial quality surveys measure buyer satisfaction during the first 90 days of ownership.
The company’s annual study of longer-term dependability, released in May, showed similar results -- Toyota on top but marked improvement from GM, Ford Motor Co. and DaimlerChrysler’s Chrysler Group.
“I don’t view all these recalls like, ‘Oh, there’s poor quality here,’ because quality in general has improved among all automakers,” said Mike Wall, an analyst with the forecasting firm CSM Worldwide.
“Certainly there are some eyebrow-raising volumes, but at the same time they can be for fairly mundane things. They’re important to get taken care of, but it doesn’t take very much to trigger one.”
Don’t look for recall tallies to diminish anytime soon, industry officials say, given the record numbers of new models available to consumers and requirements contained in what’s known as the federal TREAD Act, enacted in 2000 as a mechanism to spot safety defects earlier.