Despite Defect, G.M. Keeps Selling S.U.V.

The Center for Auto Safety is the nation’s premier independent, member driven, non-profit consumer advocacy organization dedicated to improving vehicle safety, quality, and fuel economy on behalf of all drivers, passengers, and pedestrians.

November 23, 2004By DANNY HAKIM
New York Times

DETROIT, Nov. 22 – Joram Rauchwerger, a 56-year-old postal worker in Tulsa, Okla., recently broke his 22-year-old vow never to buy another car made by General Motors. To say the least, he regrets the decision.

Mr. Rauchwerger bought a new Saturn Vue, a small sport utility vehicle, o­n Oct. 11, o­nly to discover later, by chance, that the Vue’s suspension system collapsed during rollover testing performed by the government over the summer. In August, G.M. said it would voluntarily recall all of the roughly 250,000 Saturn Vues o­n the road in the United States and Canada. The swift action by G.M. bolstered Saturn’s reputation for adept customer care and quieted news reports about the problem.

But in the months since, G.M. has continued to sell 2004 models of the Vue from its dealer lots -probably more than 10,000 in the last three months. Most of the S.U.V.’s were not fixed before they were sold. To date, G.M. has fixed o­nly a few thousand of the quarter-million existing Vue models because it takes time to procure new suspension parts for so many vehicles. The 2005 models were fixed before they left factories.

The government has permitted G.M. to continue selling Vues before they are fixed because it has determined that the highly unusual failure during its new rollover test does not constitute a safety defect. And the Vue is not actually the subject of a formal recall, but a less-stringent voluntary measure known as a service campaign that permits G.M. to keep selling the vehicle without fixing it.

Consumer groups say the government’s decision raises questions about how seriously regulators take their own rollover test. And they are also disturbed that consumers have been buying vehicles that have not been fixed and that they might not even know about the problem.

Sherrie Childers Arb, Saturn’s communications director, said G.M. had moved unusually quickly to address the issue. But there does not appear to have been any directive from G.M. to its dealers to discuss the problem with potential buyers, and Mr. Rauchwerger said he was not told about it.

"If there was a risk there, we wouldn’t have closed the investigation," said Rae Tyson, a spokesman for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, adding that the government’s test was "an extreme maneuver" and that a real- world accident had not been found that was caused by the problem.

Clarence Ditlow, director of the Center for Auto Safety, a consumer group, said, "It’s preposterous they’re still selling the vehicle."

"It’s even more dismaying to learn that the government is permitting G.M. to sell the vehicle by not doing a safety recall," Mr. Ditlow added.

Rollover testing of new vehicles was forced o­n the traffic safety agency by Congress after nearly 300 rollover deaths in the late 1990’s in Ford Explorers equipped with Firestone tires. Consumer groups are becoming increasingly concerned that regulators are not giving the results of the tests enough weight in computing the star ratings they assign vehicles for rollover performance.

Even an S.U.V. that tips up o­n two wheels during the testing can earn as many as three out of five stars. And the groups are dismayed that G.M. has been allowed to continue to sell a vehicle that broke during the test.

Joan Claybrook, the president of Public Citizen, said, "I think it’s irresponsible."

"For N.H.T.S.A. not to recall these vehicles o­n something as serious as this is entirely wrong and completely undercuts the agency’s authority," added Ms. Claybrook, who ran the agency under the Carter administration and has since become o­ne of the chief gadflies of both the industry and the agency.

"How can they say it’s not serious when it fails their own test?" she said.

The Saturn Vue’s problem first came to light in June when the left rear wheel of both the two- and four-wheel-drive versions of the Vue collapsed during separate rollover tests. In the tests, the vehicles are driven through as many as 10 maneuvers known as fishhooks that include unusually sharp turns. The failures occurred at 45 m.p.h., halting the testing.

Both G.M. officials and Mr. Tyson said the test was a severe o­ne that exaggerated normal driving responses and that would be difficult to duplicate outside of the test track. The agency did investigate two accidents that it initially thought could have been related to the problem, but subsequently ruled them out.

"When we closed our investigation we made a point of noting we did not recognize a safety-related defect," Mr. Tyson said.

Mr. Ditlow at the Center for Auto Safety said: "This maneuver was designed to replicate what a consumer might do in an emergency situation. Is this an ordinary maneuver? No. But it’s an emergency avoidance maneuver that might happen in real life. How many other vehicles that ran through this test had their suspension fail? Zero."

Ms. Claybrook said the agency was "given lots of different options for a test to adopt."

"They chose this test," she added. "If they don’t think it’s a good test, why did they choose it?"

Most recalls are voluntary and undertaken by automakers under pressure from regulators, but they are bound by the same guidelines of government-imposed recalls. Among them, automakers cannot keep selling a vehicle until it has been fixed.

But in the last decade, federal regulators have allowed automakers to use service campaigns instead of recalls to resolve some safety-related issues, generally to avoid the prospect of litigation that can delay resolution for years. In the case of the Vue, however, the agency determined after its own investigation that there was no defect presenting a safety risk and no additional action needed beyond G.M.’s commitment to fix all of the vehicles, free of charge, as parts become available over several months.

Mr. Rauchwerger said that at least in his case, he was not told by his dealer that his new Vue would need a substantial post-production suspension repair.

"I just don’t think it’s very cute of them not to tell people this before they sell the car," said Mr. Rauchwerger, who added that he would not have bought the Vue if he had known. "I feel like I’ve been ripped off."

Ms. Childers Arb of G.M. said the company tried to call all of the quarter-million owners of the Vue over a three-day period to inform them.

As for buyers of the 2004 model Saturn Vue, she said she believed that most dealers would have been upfront about the situation, but after reviewing his case, she said that Mr. Rauchwerger was not informed.

"That’s not our philosophy and how we work with our customers and owners," she said. "Our philosophy is full disclosure. I believe this is not consistent with how this network has been working through this particular issue."

She said G.M. was reviewing the case. Joe Marina, the president of Saturn of Tulsa, conceded that Mr. Rauchwerger was not told before the sale. He said the blame belonged to an inexperienced sales staff member but said he would offer o­nly to replace a 2004 model with another 2004 model.

Rob Cochran, a Pittsburgh area Saturn dealer who is a member of an eight-dealer council coordinating relations with G.M., said he expected that most Saturn dealers would know to inform customers because o­ne of the brand’s "hallmarks is candor and being upfront – everything is o­n the table."

The company said there was extensive communication between G.M. and dealers o­n informing owners about the recall, but no specific directive about new customers. A review of several dealer Web sites showed that some include a prominent explanation of the recall issue, while others promote the Vue’s five-star ratings in separate front and side impact crash tests performed by the government.

G.M. said last week that about 3,500 remained unsold. By now many of those have probably been repaired. The repaired Vue survived the government rollover test, though it tipped up o­n two wheels during testing, indicating a more significant rollover risk than other vehicles.

The 2004 models are attractive to many buyers because they are deeply discounted to make way for 2005 models, and in the case of the Vue, there is little difference aside from the suspension issue.

Mr. Rauchwerger said it was a substantial discount that attracted him to his green Vue, his first new vehicle in several years. He says next time, he will do more research, but after a bad experience with a Buick in the 1980’s, he probably will not return to G.M.

"I made myself a pledge, when I was putting a pan under my Buick to collect the oil, I said I would never ever buy another General Motors car," he said. "If I had kept my own promise, we wouldn’t be having this conversation."