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U.S. Industry Recall Numbers Declining, Despite Toyota’s Nagging Pedal Problems

Traditional quality leader Toyota finishes the January-June period with an industry-worst 2.8 million vehicles implicated by recall campaigns.

U.S.-market auto makers are poised to bounce back in 2011 from consecutive years of record recalls, according to a Ward’s analysis of National Highway Traffic Safety Admin. data.

Approaching the year’s half-way point, there have been 59 recall campaigns affecting a potential 6.8 million cars and light trucks.

This time last year, there were 65 recalls with implications for more than 9.6 million light vehicles.

Traditional quality leader Toyota, whose reputation has been smudged in recent years for recalling millions of cars and trucks linked to sticky accelerator pedals and ill-fitting floor mats, has so far racked up an industry-worst nine recall campaigns affecting more than 2.8 million vehicles.

The Japanese auto maker again finds its recall totals inflated by accelerator-pedal interference.

In February, the company widened by 1.4 million units the number of Toyota- and Lexus-brand vehicles affected by floor mats that threatened to shift and pin down accelerator pedals. The auto maker also declared 788,976 vehicles were subject to recall because carpeting might interfere with pedals.

Since 2009, Toyota has issued recalls with implications for 9.8 million of its highest-volume vehicles because of accelerator-pedal interference and faulty accelerator-pedal design. The auto maker paid $32.4 million in fines last year for not issuing the recalls sooner.

Remove Toyota’s pedal problems from the mix and the auto maker’s recall total this year would number 697,640 units, nearly half of which are linked to malfunctioning side-curtain airbag sensors in ’08 and ’07 Toyota Highlander, Highlander Hybrid and RAV4 cross/utility vehicles.

The malfunction causes a warning light to illuminate, but the airbags would still deploy in a crash, the auto maker says.

A fuel-pressure sensor on another 244,779 Lexus GS and IS models between ’06 and ’09 could loosen over time and cause a fuel leak.

Toyota remains one of the industry top performers in an annual initial-quality study released earlier this week by J.D. Power and Associates.

Although J.D. Power does not make public initial-quality scores by manufacturer – the consultant dices up its results by brand – the study’s authors tell Ward’s Toyota ranked second behind Honda.

At the current pace, auto makers are on track to bring fewer cars and trucks back to dealers for repair this year than in 2010.

There were 136 light-vehicle recall campaigns in the U.S. last year. They had implications for an estimated 17.2 million units, making it one of the poorest performances in recent years but short of the record 24.3 million in 2000.

In 2009, 16.4 million vehicles were subject to recalls.

General Motors also has issued nine recall campaigns this year. They had implications for 336,179 LVs. Most of the recall total was linked to the new-for-’11 Chevrolet Cruze compact car.

Up to 231,319 units were subject to three separate campaigns aimed at the Cruze, a key element of GM’s effort to rebalance its historically truck-heavy volume.

One callback targeted 128,911 units. GM says a bolt attaching the intermediate steering shaft to the steering gear input shaft may not have been properly installed. This could cause the shaft to separate and lead to steering loss.

The transmission shift linkage on another 100,308 Cruzes may have been improperly installed and the PRNDL shifter lever may not accurately reflect the gear position, leading to an inability to restart the vehicle or a possible roll-away.

A third recall on 2,100 Cruzes was to fix steering wheels that may have been improperly attached. In at least one reported case, a steering wheel detached from the steering column.

GM specifically ramped up production of the Cruze at its Lordstown, OH, assembly plant slowly last fall, stretching the process over some four months to avoid quality glitches. “A number of changes were made on the assembly line to prevent these things from happening again,” GM spokesman Alan Adler says.

The problems prompted GM to temporarily halt Cruze shipments, and Adler says most of the repairs were made to vehicles before they were sold.

Ford issued a surprising six campaigns through the year’s first six months, affecting some 2.1 million vehicles.

Most of the total was linked to a recall of its best-selling vehicle, the Ford F-150 pickup. Wiring for the driver’s side airbag could short-circuit, causing inadvertent deployment.

The 1.3 million affected vehicles, which include some units of the F-150’s former Lincoln Mark LT platform-mate, span model years ’04 to ’06.

The auto maker also recalled 425,288 Ford Windstar minivans in certain cold-weather states from the ’99-’03 model years for a potential suspension problem that could reduce steering control.

Honda, which earlier this week dominated J.D. Power’s initial-quality rankings, has issued seven recalls this year, affecting up to 96,716 vehicles.

Among the vehicles pulled back to dealers was the Civic Hybrid, with 36,656 units potentially affected by a voltage converter within the integrated motor assist unit. Some of the components are subject to electrical failure, NHTSA says.

Chrysler brought back 380,065 vehicles with three campaigns, including a 350,388-unit recall comprised mostly of model-year ’10 Chrysler Town & Country and Dodge Caravan minivans and all-wheel-drive models of the Dodge Journey CUV.

According to NHTSA documents, some of the vehicles could experience “inadvertent ignition-key displacement,” causing sudden engine shut-off during operation.

The Detroit Three auto makers issued 18 recalls for 2.8 million vehicles, approaching 2011’s 6-month mark. Asian car companies brought back 3.5 million cars and trucks with 26 campaigns, while the Europeans issued 18 recalls affecting 249,168 units.

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