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Businessweek
Certain pickup trucks, like GM's Chevrolet Colorado, may experience permanent loss of brake-lamp function or brake lamps that refuse to power off.
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updated 7/17/2006 4:59:22 PM ET 2006-07-17T20:59:22

The thrill of buying a new car extends far beyond the new-car smell. There's the excitement of the first drive, the odometer creeping higher and higher, often toward just three digits, and, of course, the ceremonial, conspicuous first driveway park.

But for some unfortunate consumers, the pomp and circumstance of buying new is marred by a recall. At best, a recall can be an annoyance or an inconvenience. At worst, it is dangerous.

Auto recalls can affect components of every type, from those as seemingly insignificant as tail-light bulbs to more considerable components, like the ones that led to the now infamous Ford-Firestone tire scandal. And 2006 has seen its share of high-profile recalls for both foreign and domestic auto companies, ranging in severity.

Last week, Nissan announced a recall of Altimas and Sentras affecting 986,800 vehicles that were susceptible to engine fires due to excessive oil consumption. Up to 24 fires have been reported to the company.

In May, meanwhile, 31,000 units of the Chevrolet Corvette were recalled by General Motors because there was mounting evidence that some roofs could come unglued at high speeds.

Recall surprises
Many recalls are preemptive, announced by the maker for unrealized but potentially disastrous consequences. Last month, for instance, Ford Motor's Volvo division recalled 109,000 XC90 SUVs after engineers detected loosening ball-joints in the steering mechanism that could possibly break and make steering more difficult. However, no crashes or injuries had been reported.

The biggest recall shocker of 2006 has come from Toyota. The company constantly receives reliability and quality awards from organizations like Consumer Reports magazine and J.D. Power — Associates. But last month, Toyota recalled an eye-popping 1 million vehicles worldwide.

About 170,000 American Priuses were the only cars affected here. Nevertheless, the size of the recall from a company that is on its way to becoming the world's largest auto manufacturer raised serious questions for many industry observers.

Use the database
Vehicle recalls are becoming a growing problem for consumers shopping for a new car. The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) manages and tracks all U.S. recalls. It maintains an extensive, detailed database of all problems, which consumers can use to find out if a vehicle they own or are considering buying has a recall associated with it. But, the system is not intended to help compare models, let alone predict problems based on past performance.

Some consumer-oriented publications also track recalls. Consumer Reports has a section devoted to recalls, but it covers consumer products beyond cars. Edmunds.com, the popular automotive online search site, just launched a safety-oriented section. But, like NHTSA's data, it is better suited to looking up information on a specific vehicle.

Organizations such as J.D. Power—which, like BusinessWeek.com, is owned by McGraw-Hill —measure initial quality and consumer satisfaction, which does not take into consideration recall history.

BusinessWeek.com set out to examine which 2006 models have been recalled the most. Though the problems may range in severity, multiple recalls are a significant annoyance for consumers. In conjunction with Edmunds.com, we found that multiple recalls affected companies in nearly every vehicle segment and price point, from the proletarian Civic to the upscale Land Rover Range Rover Sport.

Recall vigilance
The ultimate gauge of the severity of recall issues at distinct manufacturers may remain out of reach. BusinessWeek.com contacted major analysts and auto data tracking companies in an attempt to compare the number of vehicles recalled in function of the number of vehicles sold. But, because auto companies most often track sales by calendar dates and recall data is organized by model-year date (a 2006 Altima, for example, went on sale last year), direct comparison is not possible.

It is important to note that not all models in a recall may be affected. Cars are built in batches, and not all models of a recalled vehicle may suffer from the same faulty component. Moreover, as parts sharing has increased, recalls often encompass a variety of brands and vehicle types. One 292,000 unit-strong recall due to faulty headlamps from a third-party supplier, Walnut, Calif.-based Anzo USA, for instance, affects Hondas, Toyotas, Fords, and Chevrolets alike.

So consumers need to remain vigilant before, during, and after a purchase. Government crash surveys, as well as independent reliability and quality rankings should still serve as the main guideposts for buyers. But, no doubt about it, recalls have decidedly crept into the buying equation.

Copyright © 2012 Bloomberg L.P. All rights reserved.

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