Last week, Honda Motor announced a global recall of 45,000 Civic Hybrid sedans, hoping to correct defective voltage converters that could cause short circuits, stopping the cars' engines and preventing them from restarting.
This is an example of a recall at its most serious: a grave problem affecting a large number of vehicles, prompting the automaker to spring to action and immediately contact owners.
Other recalls, on the other hand, are not so grim.
Take the October 2004 federal recall of Ford Motor's 2005 Jaguar S-Type sedan, a move that potentially affected 50,000 models. (Recalls typically don't affect an entire model's production run.) According to a statement released by the U.S. Department of Transportation, "The brake-fluid master-cylinder reservoir is recessed and oriented in the engine compartment beneath a leaf screen, such that the brake fluid warning statement embossed on the top of the reservoir is not visible by direct view."
Somebody call Ralph Nader.
All kidding aside, examine the most-recalled 2006-model cars, and you will find that a number of seemingly trouble-free vehicles have problems.
Honda's 2006 Civic has had four recalls, as has Hyundai's popular Sonata sedan. Each of these models had one recall for improper labels within the vehicle (comparatively minor recalls), but each also had three recalls for manufacturing problems that could have caused accidents and injuries.
For example, the 2006 Civic had a November 2005 recall potentially affecting 25,000 cars. On certain Civics, Honda had not installed the gas pedals properly, and they may have come loose at the floor mountings. In drive, the pedals could have become stuck, increasing the risk of a crash.
In Hyundai's case, an August 2005 recall potentially involved 36,000 Sonatas. On certain models, a manufacturing defect was causing the front seatbelt to interfere with the manual seatback recliner knob, causing the recliner to release inadvertently — a safety hazard.
As recalls go, "The recliner knob was pretty big," says Hyundai spokesman Miles Johnson. "That got some coverage." On the other hand, fixing the problem involved a "minor change on a plastic part."
Regarding all four Sonata recalls, "We voluntarily initiated all these actions to ensure the safety and quality of the vehicles and customer satisfaction," Johnson says. "These recalls were discovered early, and were contained to a small population of vehicles."
Indeed, while some recalls can affect tens of thousands of cars, many can affect a small number of models. One of the Sonata's 2006 recalls — a problem with the headlights — potentially affected only 500 vehicles.
Small and minor recalls are just two things that make them imperfect indicators of vehicle safety, even though recalls can teach us a lot about major trouble spots.
Some, though, say the number of recalls issued each year is too high.
In his recently published book, "Shifting Out Of Park: Moving Auto Safety From Recalls To Reason," author Kevin M. McDonald says the Department of Transportation's National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), which develops and administers car-safety regulations, issues as many as 30 million recalls per year. More cars are recalled than sold, he says.
What's more, compliance with federally mandated recalls is tough to achieve, since car owners ignore up to 25 percent of recall notices, according to McDonald. He points out that parts and labor cost automakers around $100 per vehicle per recall. Do some recalls even make sense for consumers and automakers? We asked McDonald, who also works for Volkswagen as an in-house counsel.
“"In the book,” he says, “you'll see a couple of examples of recalls that shouldn't have been safety recalls. There was a GM recall a couple of years ago of about a half-million Astros and GMC Safaris. The defect was the failure of these 500,000 vehicles to chime for four to eight seconds when the seatbelt wasn't clicked. These affected vehicles failed to chime for a fraction of a second less than the safety standard required — even though the illuminated seatbelt icon on the dashboard lit up for longer than was required."
"You really don't need to do a safety recall" in a case like this, he said.
We asked why NHTSA would push for such a recall. "NHTSA measures its success in large part by the number of recalls it generates,” McDonald says. “There was a time in the '70s when it focused on forward-looking rule-making and setting safety standards. Over time, NHTSA has come to focus on recalls as one measure of how they are doing their job."
What’s more, “even if you have a good-faith disagreement on what's a safety defect or whether it's in a certain class of vehicles, if you're going to litigate the issue, whether you'll win in the court of public opinion is very dubious."
And more cars are recalled than sold because recalls often span multiple model years, increasing the pool of potentially affected vehicles.
NHTSA declined to comment on McDonald's remarks to Forbes.com.
While our data on the most-recalled 2006-model cars comes from NHTSA's list of safety recalls, Honda has taken issue with what exactly constitutes a safety recall.
The carmaker's 2006-model Accords and Civics participated in a July 2006 recall that potentially affected 1.2 million 2006- and 2007-model Hondas. The recall sounded pretty minor: The owner's manuals of certain cars and motorcycles had incorrect contact information for NHTSA's Vehicle Safety Hotline. Honda responded by sending postcards with the correct information to dealers and owners.
"By definition, recalls are issued to address something that poses a risk to passenger safety, so this was not a recall," wrote Honda spokesman Chris Naughton in a recent e-mail message.
But NHTSA lists the owner's-manual case in its safety-recall database, and we can see how not being able to call the right NHTSA number to report safety defects could be a problem, so we counted this recall in determining the most-recalled 2006-model cars.
Naughton went on to say that Honda was among companies with the fewest recalls in model-year 2006, and that some recalls span different model years (such as the owner's-manual recall, which affected 2006- and 2007-model cars).
In terms of other comments we received in researching this story, Land Rover e-mailed us the following statement in response to our inclusion of the company's LR3 and Range Rover Sport SUVs in this story: "For the most part, Land Rover recalls have involved a small number of vehicles. We identified the issues and diligently worked to correct them. Land Rover recognizes the need for sustainable high quality, and we are committed to achieving the high levels of quality our customers expect from us."
A DaimlerChrysler spokesman also touched on the volume of certain recalls in response to our inclusion of two Dodges and a Jeep in this story. The spokesman wrote in a recent e-mail, "Several of the recalls involved small numbers of vehicles."
By publication time General Motors had not responded to requests for comment.