Chrysler’s swift recall shows effect of Toyota PR debacle


The speed with which Chrysler Group recalled 25,000 Dodge Caliber and Jeep Compass vehicles demonstrated how wary automakers have become of repeating the public relations debacle experienced by Toyota Motor Corp. over a series of large recalls and quality issues, analysts said.

The recall, announced Friday, of the 2007 model-year vehicles follows a National Highway Traffic Safety Administration probe into problems that surfaced in late April after federal safety officials received five complaints of binding or sticky gas pedals.

The pedal system is built by CTS Corp. of Elkhart, Ind., which also built the accelerator pedal assemblies that were recalled in 2.3 million Toyota vehicles in late January.

“Clearly, Chrysler and CTS have taken a look at what happened at Toyota and said they don’t want that happening to them,” said Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety.

Manufacturers are especially sensitive to any issue dealing with gas pedals and acceleration, Ditlow said.

Toyota has had a series of embarrassing global recalls of accelerator pedals and other issues that involved millions of vehicles, as well as a record $16.4-million fine from U.S. safety regulators.

“Everybody has been paying much more attention since the Toyota recalls and product liability issues,” said Aaron Jacoby, who heads the automotive group at law firm Arent Fox law in Los Angeles. “When manufacturers and suppliers have a problem, they want to solve it in a way that best deals with the issue for consumers and shareholders.”

In addition to facing more than 200 federal lawsuits over alleged sudden-acceleration problems, Toyota has also seen its market share slide in the U.S. In May, a month when most automakers posted double-digit sales gains, Toyota’s sales rose only 6.7%. Through the first five months of this year the Japanese automaker’s U.S. market share has dropped to 15.2%, compared with 16.2% during the same period a year earlier.

Chrysler is recalling its vehicles after some drivers complained that when they released the gas pedal it did not return to the idle position. Four of the complaints said the drivers found parts from the pedal assembly loose on the driver’s side floor.

A NHTSA analysis found that the problem resulted because pockets in the pedal assembly that hold bushings, which act as a bearing for the pivot shaft of the accelerator pedal arm, were too large.

In a letter to NHTSA on Thursday, Chrysler said the vehicles were equipped with an electronic throttle control system that reduced engine power when there was a “disagreement” between the brake and the accelerator signals.

Chrysler said the system prevented the pedal problem from causing “an unreasonable risk to motor vehicle safety.”

Only pedals installed in cars manufactured between March 7 and May 19, 2006, are affected. The automaker said its recall was designed to find those faulty pedal assemblies and replace them.

In the Toyota cases, both the automaker and NHTSA said the pedals had a tendency to stick in a partially depressed position, or were slow to return to idle position. On Jan. 26 regulators opened a defect investigation into CTS, the first ever taken against the company.

CTS has repeatedly denied that its pedals cause sudden acceleration or that the pedals can even fully stick. It called the issue a “slow return pedal phenomenon,” and said in a statement that it was unaware of any accidents or injuries because of the problem. The NHTSA investigation is still pending.

Days after the Toyota pedal recall, Ford Motor Co. said it was halting production of a van in China and recalling about 1,600 that had already been shipped because they used pedals similar to those in the recalled Toyota vehicles.

Chrysler’s recall follows a NHTSA investigation May 28 of Ford-built Fusion and Milan sedans for gas pedals that can be trapped by floor mats.

Times staff writer Ken Bensinger contributed to this report.