UPDATED: 3/21/14 4:49 pm ET - adds NHTSA response
DETROIT -- The Saturn Ion, one of the vehicles covered by General Motors’ ignition-switch recall, also is the subject of a long-running investigation by federal safety regulators into whether GM should have included it in a 2010 recall for power-steering failures.
Ion owners have filed at least 846 complaints with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and about 3,500 reports with GM, according to NHTSA, which started looking into the issue in December 2010. Owners of Ions from the 2004-07 model years allege that they experienced sudden loss of power-steering assistance, an issue that prompted GM to recall more than 1 million Chevrolet Cobalt and Pontiac G5 sedans four years ago.
GM told NHTSA that the Ion’s electric power-steering system is identical to that in the Cobalt and G5, and NHTSA said it replicated the problem in an Ion as well as a Cobalt. But the agency has not forced GM to issue a recall of the Ion.
“We cannot understand the delay in recalling Saturn Ions, particularly in light of your recent statement that the ignition switch recall ‘took too long,’” Peter Flaherty, president of the National Legal and Policy Center, wrote Wednesday in a letter that he sent to GM CEO Mary Barra and posted on the group’s Web site. “You also stated ‘terrible things happened.’ An immediate recall of Saturn Ions will prevent additional ‘terrible things’ from happening.”
In response to an inquiry from Automotive News, NHTSA said that it "is actively investigating the potential safety defect and will take appropriate action based on the agency’s findings." But the agency said that it must consider factors that can affect the safety ramifications of using the same component in different vehicles, such as the wheel base of a car, the size of its tires and the weight of the vehicle. NHTSA also said that during its defect investigations, it reviews peer vehicles to see how a given model compares.
GM, which this week announced three more recalls and said it was taking a harder look at reports it has received about possible defects, declined to comment about specific vehicles being evaluated.
“We are redoubling our efforts on pending product reviews to bring them forward and resolve them quickly,” GM spokesman Jim Cain said. “We can’t sacrifice accuracy for speed.”
If GM were to recall the Ions, 382,000 vehicles would be included. It has received reports of 16 crashes and two injuries.
The power-steering complaints are unrelated to the recall GM announced last month to replace ignition switches in 1.6 million Cobalts, Ions and other vehicles.
When GM recalled the Cobalt and G5 in May 2010, it said a buildup of brush debris mixed with oily material could cause the power-steering system’s motor to stop working. The same issue is described in Ion complaints, NHTSA said.
NHTSA upgraded its investigation of the Ion to an engineering analysis in September 2011 but said it did not have enough evidence to order a recall.
Around that time, GM said it did not plan to recall the Ions but was giving their owners a warranty covering the system for up to 10 years or 100,000 miles.
Gabe Nelson contributed to this report.