Documents show trail of failures, redesigns in GM's small cars

A long history of ignition problems

Documents show trail of failures, redesigns in GM's small cars

A trip to a Detroit junkyard found two generations of GM's troubled ignition switches in Saturn Ions. The switch on the left, the focus of the GM recall, replaced the original switch, on the right, which had a design defect that sometimes prevented Ions from starting.
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General Motors and its suppliers repeatedly botched a basic function of the Chevrolet Cobalt and Saturn Ion — the system that turns the cars on and off — leading to multiple redesigns of the ignitions, hundreds of complaints and frequent warranty claims, according to documents reviewed by Automotive News.

Service bulletins that GM sent to its dealerships, court filings and documents GM provided to federal regulators show that engineers spent considerable time over more than a decade investigating and fixing various flaws in the ignition system. But while GM in 2012 offered to replace shoddy key cylinders free of charge, there is no indication so far that anyone within the company discussed the problems with the ignition system as safety hazards or raised the possibility of a recall until late last year.

Many early Saturn Ions refused to turn on, especially in cold weather.

Years later, some Chevrolet Cobalts couldn’t be shut off.

Some drivers complained about their key getting stuck in the ignition, while others reported that the key would come out when it wasn’t supposed to. A GM engineer who started investigating the ignition switches in 2011 described incidents in which Cobalt keys became jammed because “the key cylinder was falling apart.”

Customers and even GM’s own employees discovered as early as 2004 that merely bumping the ignition with their knee could turn off the car, leading one engineer to conclude that it was at least an inch too low on the steering column.

At least 3 changes

A lawsuit filed last week in federal court in San Francisco contends the ignition systems are defective in all Cobalts — including the 2008-10 models that GM added to its recall on Friday — in part because GM never moved the ignition higher.

The ignition switch — a black plastic-encased part behind the key cylinder — at the center of last month’s recall was altered at least three times in a five-year period. GM told federal regulators last month that one of its engineers signed a document approving a modification in April 2006. In that instance, GM didn’t change the part number, which former engineers say was a violation of company protocol.

The switch already had been altered once — and given a new part number — to resolve a problem in the “Passlock” theft-deterrent system that could prevent Ions from starting. GM issued a service bulletin in November 2005 instructing dealers to replace the switch in 2003-06 Ions.

“Verify that the ignition switch has been replaced at least once using P/N 10392423,” GM told dealers in a March 2006 update to the 2005 bulletin. The original Ion ignition carried part number 12450250. Automotive News obtained switches bearing both part numbers from Ions at a Detroit junkyard.

The ignition switch in the 2005 Cobalt owned by Brooke Melton, a Georgia nurse who died in a 2010 crash, had the part number 10392423, said Mark Hood, a materials engineer with McSwain Engineering in Pensacola, Fla. Hood analyzed the switches for Melton’s family as part of a wrongful-death lawsuit against GM that was settled in September 2013.

GM hasn’t said whether the defect also exists in switches with the original part number, though the recall does include the model years in which those switches were used.

A GM spokesman said last week that the company is still investigating what went wrong and declined to comment further for this story.

An April 2013 deposition of a GM engineer in that case and online parts catalogs show that the company began using another new part number, 15886190, for the ignition switch in the Cobalt and Chevrolet HHR during the 2008 model year, though the reason is unclear.

‘Binding condition’

The fact that GM did assign a new part number two other times, even though the part’s exterior appearance never changed, highlights the unusual nature of the April 2006 modification. GM didn’t note the other alterations in timelines filed with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Problems with the key cylinders date back to at least 2004, according to the deposition of another GM engineer in the Melton case. The engineer, David Trush, said GM had its supplier make replacement cylinders and issued a service bulletin telling dealers to install them for customers who complained that they couldn’t rotate the key. Trush said GM then changed to a different supplier around 2008 because of quality and production deficiencies.

In April 2012, GM began a customer-satisfaction campaign in which it offered to replace the key cylinders on 2007-09 Cobalts and Pontiac G5s and 2008-10 Chevrolet HHRs free of charge. A letter GM sent to owners says a “binding condition” between the cylinder and its housing could prevent turning or removing the key and keep drivers from shutting the car off.

You can reach Nick Bunkley at nbunkley@crain.com. -- Follow Nick on Twitter

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