DETROIT -- General Motors is offering to repair customers' Chevrolet Cobalts and other older small cars to prevent keys from getting stuck in the ignition, but the company said it isn't issuing a recall because the problem doesn’t pose a safety risk.
The 2.2 million small cars subject to repair are the same ones recalled in February and March for a defective ignition switch that has been linked to 38 deaths. They include the Cobalt, Saturn Ion and other small cars, ranging from the 2003-11 model years, excluding versions with manual transmissions.
GM notified dealers on Thursday of a "special coverage adjustment" that offers a free fix to any customer having trouble removing the key from the ignition. GM estimates that the defect exists in 3 to 4 percent of the 2.2 million vehicles, according to the dealer notification.
In cars that experience the problem, the transmission shifter might not properly transmit an electrical signal to allow the ignition key to be turned back from the “accessory” position to the “lock” position, according to the bulletin sent to dealers.
"If this occurs, the ignition key cannot be removed from the ignition cylinder," the bulletin says. The key can be removed via a manual-release plunger on the underside of the steering column, it says, but most drivers likely wouldn't know to look for the plunger without referring to the owner's manual.
GM said there are no related crashes or injuries because the problem doesn't occur while the vehicle is moving. The risk is a dead battery.
"A key left in the accessory position for an extended period of time may result in severe battery drain and a possible no start condition," the bulletin says.
GM is asking dealers to replace the automatic transmission shifter to fix the defect.
The company plans to mail 2.2 million letters to U.S. and Canadian customers next week notifying them that warranty coverage to fix the defect is good for 15 years from the date of the vehicle's original sale, which would cover all affected models.
The repair could take up to 3 hours or more, depending on the model, and GM is encouraging dealers to provide courtesy vehicles or transportation to customers affected.
A GM spokesman confirmed the content of the letter sent to dealers but could not discuss the expected cost of the repairs.
Because the trouble is in the shifter, the problem can occur even on cars that have had the ignition switch and ignition lock cylinder replaced under two recalls this year, a GM spokesman said.
As of Monday, GM had replaced ignition switches on 1.4 million of the 2.2 million recalled cars. The switch can inadvertently slip out of the “run” position, which cuts power to the steering, brakes and airbags.
Those cars also have had their ignition lock cylinder replaced under a separate recall to fix the problem of keys that could be removed from the ignition while the engine was still running.
GM recently discovered the key-sticking problem through about 40 reports submitted by customers to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the company said.
The flaw underscores how problematic the ignition system on those models has been. The flimsy ignition switch was once dubbed the "switch from hell" by its designer, former GM engineer Ray DeGiorgio, who was fired in June along with 14 other employees following a GM investigation into the defect.
The models with the key-sticking problem include: 2005-10 Cobalt, 2006-11 Chevy HHR, 2006-10 Pontiac Solstice, 2007-10 Pontiac G5, 2005-06 Pontiac G4/Pursuit, 2007-10 Saturn Sky and 2003-07 Saturn Ion.