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.
2000 Ford Explorer
Before Toyota's problems came to light, the Ford/Firestone debacle was the most comprehensive, brand-damaging recall of the decade. In the late 1990s, owners reported the tires on their Ford Explorer SUVs were suffering tread separation--a problem which was linked to at least 270 deaths. With much foot-dragging and internal debate, the tire company recalled 6.5 million tires in August 2000 for tread separation; a year later, Ford itself recalled another 13 million tires at a cost estimated at $3 billion.2000-2009: Ford cruise control
Throughout the 1990s, a huge swath of Ford vehicles came standard with a single type of cruise control. By 2000, that cruise-control switch was implicated in mysterious fires that occurred even after the vehicles in question had been turned off. In 2009, Ford finally completed its legal requirements in the recall, which would be widened several times to cover nearly 17.5 million vehicles from its Ford, Mercury and Lincoln brands, as well as a handful of Mazda pickups, all manufactured from 1993 to 2004. A troubling point: according to the NHTSA, through no fault of Ford's, many of the vehicles involved still have not been repaired.
2000 Volkswagen New Beetle
Volkswagen started the last decade with some momentum, thanks to clever ads and the return of the iconic Beetle. By 2003, the new generation of VW converts were an irked bunch, thanks to a problem with faulty ignition coils in its four- and six-cylinder engines that led to charges of foot-dragging by the German automaker. The coils would fail without warning, and until an official service action in 2003, VW only would replace the coils after they had failed--and after much kvetching. Eventually, more than half a million Volkswagen and Audi vehicles were included in a service action that replaced the coils at no charge. The cost to VW's reputation: enormous. Today, the issue still is under surveillance by the NHTSA, as VW prepares another U.S. onslaught with the 2011 Jetta and with a new mid-size sedan manufactured in Tennessee.
2002-2004: Honda automatic transmissions
Honda's first step beyond four-speed automatic transmissions proved a difficult one. A new five-speed automatic developed for use across its lineup, in vehicles from the Honda Accord and Odyssey to the Acura TL and MDX did not provide enough lubrication for proper transmission shifts. Honda spent more than $150 million to fix the problem in more than 1 million affected vehicles, but its reputation for reliability took a big, rare hit.
ASI Ferrari 458 Italia
It may only have affected 1,248 vehicles, but this year's notorious recall of the Ferrari 458 Italia grabbed headlines because of the spectacular fires that resulted. In the initial run of Italia coupes, wheel-liner glue caught fire, which spread to the rest of the mid-engined supercar. Before the headlines could spread out of control, Ferrari brought back all the copies it had built through July to swap out the glue for rivets. The final tally: four extra-crispy cars, and one scorched reputation.