Sep. 27, 2012 at 7:33 AM ET
Last year, the government received nearly 30,000 complaints from car owners concerned about potentially dangerous defects with their vehicle. Since 2007, the department responsible for auto safety — the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration — has received more than 130,000 complaints.
The reports range from unintended acceleration to malfunctioning air bags. 24/7 Wall St. reviewed complaints recorded by the Traffic Safety Administration since January 2007 to identify the 10 car brands with the most safety complaints relative to the number of vehicles they sell.
Following receipt of a complaint, the Traffic Safety Administration determines whether a particular vehicle has a real, widespread safety issue. If it does, the agency works with manufacturers to issue recalls. While these recalls can force manufacturers to address safety concerns, they also serve to alert consumers to problems. According to several experts interviewed by 24/7 Wall St., once consumers become aware of a recall, they are much more likely to complain about the model to the Traffic Safety Administration.
In an interview with Panee Segal, senior manager of Data Syndication and Support at Edmunds, she explained that many drivers submit complaints about their cars because they discovered a problem through media coverage. Referring to the recalls issued by Toyota in 2010, she said, “the media will uncover a story — say for instance the floor mats and stuck accelerator — and consumers will become aware of the NHTSA being an avenue for consumers to file complaints. Consumers read the story and say ‘Hey, I have that complaint, too. Let me send in a complaint for the government to be aware of.’”
24/7 Wall St. reviewed the car models of the brands that received the most complaints recorded by the Traffic Safety Administration, based on data provided by online automotive information resource Edmunds.com. In nine out of the 10 cases, well-publicized recalls had been initiated on these vehicles. The Prius — part of Toyota’s unintended acceleration fiasco — was the brand’s most complained-about vehicle. Similarly, the Murano, Nissan’s most complained-about vehicle, had a 360,000-vehicle recall in 2009 due to air ducts that caused the engine to stall.
The effects of recalls, especially well-publicized ones, can be devastating to brand sales and perceived safety. In the first quarter of 2010, Toyota experienced a steep drop in sales following the company’s massive recall. According to a Consumer Reports annual study on consumer identification of auto brands, Toyota’s safety score fell substantially after the incident.
Shaking an image of inferior quality is hard to do, according to Jeff Bartless, deputy editor for Consumer Reports, even when the problem is not related to safety. Brands that are perceived to have general, nonsafety-related mechanical problems are also more likely to be considered unsafe, Bartless explained. As a result, these cars receive complaints regardless of recalls. Volkswagen and Jaguar, two of the cars with the most complaints — have been considered unreliable for years.
According to Bartless, while the Traffic Safety Administration bases recalls on safety risk, the car brands with the most complaints also develop issues that require repair unrelated to safety. “Certainly, the more a car breaks down — it is unreliable, problematic, and expensive — that’s definitely going to shape people's perception, depending on the nature of the problem,” he said.
Edmunds provided 24/7 Wall St. with a comprehensive list of safety complaints issues to the Traffic Safety Administration by brand and model between Jan. 1, 2007, and Aug. 31, 2012. Included were the most commonly complained about vehicle for each brand over that period, as well as the most common type of complaint given for each brand and model. 24/7 Wall St. also consulted Consumer Reports 2012 Car Brand Perception Report.
The Cooper, which represents more than half of the brand’s total sales, was the most complained-about Mini model, with concerns over steering comprising 41 percent of all Mini complaints. In 2010, the Traffic Safety Administration opened an investigation into the 2004 and 2005 Cooper models following complaints that power-assisted steering often fails. Then in January of this year, parent-company BMW recalled 235,000 Minis following complaints to the Traffic Safety Administration of fires due to the overheating of the vehicle’s water pump. According to ConsumerReports.org, the Mini brand was tied with Scion and Ferrari as the worst brands for consumer perception safety.
Wrangler, which represents roughly 30 percent of Jeep’s total sales, received the most complaints since 2007, with the fuel emission and exhaust system the source of the most common complaint. Jeep’s parent company, Chrysler, announced in May that it was recalling about 87,000 2010 model Wranglers after the Traffic Safety Administration noted that debris could get trapped in the exhaust system, potentially leading to a fire. Just a month later, Chrysler recalled approximately 347,000 Jeep Libertys due to concerns that the lower control arms in the SUV’s rear suspension can rust and cause the vehicle to crash. According to ConsumerReports.org, Jeep’s overall brand perception dropped between 2011 and 2012, but it was in the bottom 10 in both years.
Following the discontinuation of Dodge’s Grand Caravan, the Town & Country will be the sole minivan made by the Chrysler Group. But of the complaints about Chryslers to the Traffic Safety Administration since the beginning of 2007, no vehicle was more frequently mentioned than the Town & Country. The most common complaint was related to the car’s brakes, with drivers reporting premature wearing of pads. Chrysler’s sales were down by nearly 60 percent between 2007 and 2011.
The Jaguar model with the most complaints was the XF, with 17 percent of complaints for that car involving the powertrain. Jaguar recalled about 18,000 X-Type cars in October 2011, which included the XF, due to problems with software. The company released a notice to customers, stating that there could be problems disengaging the cruise control. Sales of the XF were down 40.2 percent between 2008 and 2011.
The Dodge model with the most complaints since 2007 was the Grand Caravan, with the most common issue being the interior electronics and hardware. In October 2011, Chrysler Group, the parent company of Dodge, announced it was stopping production of both the Grand Caravan and the Avenger. CEO Sergio Marchionne told Automotive News that Chrysler would release a crossover between the Grand Caravan and Avenger for 2013. Dodge’s market share has dropped in the past year, falling from 5.2 percent in July 2011 to 3.1 percent in July 2012. Sales were down 37 percent between 2007 and 2011.