The TCC List: The 7 Most Important Recalls Of the Decade

November 30, 2010

Safer driving starts with a driver's skills, but it also begins with the vehicle itself--one that's engineered and manufactured to operate in a predictable, reliable way.

When the best-laid plans of car companies go awry, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration gets involved. As part of its mandate, the NHTSA patrols repair and crash records for vehicles to find flaws and defects. When it decides a vehicle isn't safe to operate, due to a mechanical defect, it issues a recall.

And sometimes, seeing the writing on the wall, car companies issue their own "service actions"--a recall in some ways, but less legally severe than an official NHTSA mandate.

The long history of car recalls has saved thousands of lives, and tarnished some nameplates in the process. Ford's Pinto fell victim to its own design flaws, called out by the safety agency.

Sometimes, companies have turned around recalls in their favor. In its early days, Saturn recalled its first cars and not only offered loaner vehicles, but also picked up and returned owners' cars as a sign of its committment to customer service. The Ford Focus endured nine recalls in its first few years on the market, spurring the company to increase its quality across the board--and today its lineup is among the most reliable, according to many surveys.

The list of recalls from the past decade includes some whoppers--and some smaller ones that had a greater impact on the carmakers involved. Not exclusively the biggest recalls on record, the seven most important car recalls and service actions of the past decade start with a duo from the very recent past:

2009: Toyota floor-mat and accelerator-pedal recalls

A dramatic expansion of its lineup had elbowed GM aside, but Toyota's legendary attention to quality had suffered in its race to become the world's largest automaker. A string of recalls ended the decade with a thud. The most notorious included its halo vehicle, the hybrid Prius, and its Lexus brand, too. In two separate actions, Toyota recalled 4.3 million vehicles in the U.S. for loose floor mats and another 2.3 million vehicles for sticking accelerator pedals. Its golden reputation dented, Toyota lost its automatic recommendation from Consumer Reports for a time, and may have lost up to 200,000 sales as a result.

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