The number grows almost daily: 25,483 Fiat 500s and 20,000 FJ cruisers and Tacomas earlier this week; 133,227 Focuses and Escapes last week. It's only September and car manufacturers have already recalled more vehicles in the US this year than any other in history. In fact, they exceeded the record in June.
Have companies forgotten how to make safe working automobiles? The reason for this explosion in do-overs is no doubt the record settlement this past March which slapped Toyota with a staggering $1.2 billion fine for its cover-up of severe defects in their product lines — defects like spontaneous accelerations which caused more deaths than we can determine. With the writing on the wall, auto companies are coming to terms with the severity of whittling down quality and cutting corners to save a buck; not in the name of decency, it seems, but to look out for their bottom line.
Criminal charges dwarf the costs of a recall. That’s why, with 3 months still to go, this year’s total automobile recalls has been close to 50 million. GM alone, with at least 13 deaths on their hands thanks to faulty ignition switches, accounts for about two thirds of the recalls. How exactly does the frequency of recalls reflect on the companies? Does a high recall rate correlate with substandard quality control in the manufacturing process - or, on the contrary, does a low recall rate suggest substandard damage control after the cars have gone on sale? In cases like GM, who are recalling a mind-blowing 30 million cars - and counting - this year in the face of criminal charges, yet don’t even place on this list, it probably suggests the latter.
Is it a coincidence that the biggest recallers of this year don’t place highly (or at all) on this list? More likely, this record-breaking year of recalls reflects years of neglecting the practice among companies that have historically kept recalling to a minimum. But evidently a new precedent has been set. As consumer safety increasingly becomes a societal issue, car companies are going to great lengths to correct potential mistakes out of their own volition. Even if the sentiment is posthumous in some cases, it's better late than never.
A study by iSeeCars.com earlier this year analyzed 30 years' worth of recall and sales data in the US to rank auto companies by “recall rates”. The figures represent the number of vehicles recalled in relation to total number of vehicles sold by each company. While the numbers don't account for this full year, these are the manufacturers that historically mulligan the most; readers can, of course, decide for themselves how this reflects on the company...
Note: the rate can be greater than “1” because companies may recall the same vehicle multiple times.
10 Kia Motors Corporation: .77 recall rate
With 4.9 million cars sold since 1980 and 3.7 million recalls since 1985, Kia Motors boasts one of the lower rates on the recalls spectrum (talk about a low bar!). This past July Kia reeled in 52,000 2014 Soul hatchbacks for potential faults in their steering system. The company explained “an improper application of thread-locking adhesive” means “the pinion gear may separate from the steering gear assembly, causing the loss of steering”. Sounds incredibly dangerous.
9 Toyota Motor Corporation: .80 recall rate
Toyota's low recall rate doesn’t look so good in the face of its unfashionably late recalls between 2009-2011. It’s now known Toyota then resisted making necessary corrections to millions of cars that had potentially lethal issues, including a “sticking” accelerator and pedal entrapment. With a dissenting approach to damage control, a lower recall rate suggests negligence more than quality manufacturing. This approach ultimately cost the company billions and ushered in the current market-wide recall boom.
8 BMW of North America, LLC: .90 recall rate
Who knew BMW recalls 90 cars for every 100 cars sold in the US? The luxury sports brand’s latest big announcement dealt with airbag inflator ruptures from a common supplier that affected multiple car companies. Among the afflicted: roughly 574,000 American BMWs made between 1999 and 2006. This company maintains an historically conservative recall policy, issuing them faster than any other company according to the study.
7 Ford Motor Company: .93 recall rate
Early this year Ford had 97 million recalls for 104.7 million sales. But then, in May alone, it called back over 2.1 million vehicles - mostly Ford Escape SUVs - for defective door handles and faulty airbag software. These recalls and 101,000 more in July were preventive — no deaths or injuries were linked to the defects. Clearly, no auto company is taking chances this year.
6 Honda (American Honda Motor Co.): .94 recall rate
Honda is, like BMW, one of many companies involved in a massive recall of 14 million cars linked to faulty airbags manufactured by Japanese company Takata. Unlike BMW though, the defect has actually caused two deaths and 30 injuries in these cars. The flaw puts the airbag at risk of a spontaneous, uncontrolled explosion which propels shrapnel through the vehicle. Whereas automakers like Nissan and BMW weren’t aware of the problem until recently, Honda is in hot water for ignoring early reports of problems in 2004, and later again in 2007.
5 Chrysler Group LLC: 1.00 recall rate
Chrysler has a relatively conservative attitude to car safety. While it issues one recall per one sale in the US, its historical timeliness suggests a safe preventative policy has long been in full effect. But the company faces new challenges this year. Its latest announcement in July — 792,000 older Jeep SUVs worldwide — concerns the same ignition-switch flaw that’s forcing GM to break records. The full extent of their damage control remains to be seen.
4 Volvo Cars of N.A., LLC: 1.05 recall rate
Volvo’s reputation for safety might seem at odds with recalling more cars than it sells. But on the contrary, a high rate is only natural for a company hoping to maintain that repute. Volvo’s timely recall record —83.5% within 3 years of sale — reveals no more than a proactive and conservative policy for handling potential defects. This could be why Volvo, who sells fewer cars in the US than any other company studied, escaped this year’s recall panic.
3 Volkswagen of America, Inc.: 1.06 recall rate
Despite 10.2 million recalls against 9.7 million sales in the US, Volkswagen hasn't partaken much in the frenzy this year. The ignition switch curse, so far, has barely hurt them with a modest 18,500 minivan recalls in August, but the company did find a unique fuel issue in 150,000 Tiguans SUVs. Their manufacturing apparently allows bubbles to form in winter fuel and causes the engine to stall. Hey, sounds better than flying shrapnel.
2 Mitsubishi Motor Company: 1.09 recall rate
Mitsubishi has been feeling the heat this year. Less than one month after it recalled 920,000 Mitsubishi Lancers worldwide for light switch problems, it recalled them again for fire risks. Around the same time it joined Honda, Nissan, Ford, Chrysler, Mazda, BMW and Subaru in the pandemic faulty air bag recall. Now this month, it announced another worldwide recall of 830,000 for defective engines and brakes. But Mitsubishi isn’t under high fire for causing any injuries or deaths — they're just trying hard to keep it that way.
1 Hyundai Motor Company: 1.15 recall rate
In a single week between July-August, Hyundai reeled in 1.3 million US vehicles for diverse and, at times, highly specific problems like rust-prone coils that could fracture and puncture a tire, defective transmission shift cables, and brake fluid leaks that slowed breaking time — all of these despite no injuries or deaths coming to light. Why is Hyundai playing so safe? Probably because, while it pales in comparison to Toyota’s fine, the company paid $17 million for failing to promptly report a break problem in 43,500 of its 2009-2012 vehicles. Pitted against an historical recall rate of 1.15 — 9.9 million recalls versus only 8.7 million sales — Hyundai no doubt treats this as a legitimate error it doesn't plan to make again.