Auto recalls jump amid heightened sensitivity

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The growing number of recalls is spreading beyond General Motors.

Ford Motor said Thursday that it was recalling about 1.3 million vehicles, including about 1.1 million in the United States, mostly because of steering problems. So far this year, Ford has recalled more than 2.9 million vehicles in the United States, far surpassing last year's 1.2 million vehicles.

There is now heightened sensitivity among automakers and regulators over safety, ever since GM in February began recalling millions of smaller cars with a defective ignition switch that it has linked to 13 deaths. This month, regulators fined GM a record $35 million, the maximum allowed, for not reporting the defect in a timely manner.

"This recall could be driven by the heightened sense of concern all automakers are feeling right now," said Karl Brauer, senior analyst at Kelley Blue Book.

Ford spokeswoman Kelli Felker said, "These recalls are part of our normal processes."

Other automakers are reporting higher recall numbers as well. In one action in March, Nissan recalled 990,000 vehicles in the United States, about 30,000 more than in all of last year. Toyota is already more than halfway to exceeding its total from last year, when it led all automakers with 5.3 million vehicles recalled.

The recall costs are also mounting. While GM has set aside $1.7 billion to pay for the more than 13 million vehicles it has recalled this year, Ford said in April that it had taken a $400 million charge in the first quarter to pay for warranty claims, including $350 million for recalls and other repair work on older cars.

All four recalls announced Thursday come several years after the automaker first knew of problems, and in three cases, only after investigations by either the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration or its counterpart, Transport Canada.

The largest recall involves about 915,000 Ford Escape and Mercury Mariner sport utility vehicles from the 2008 to 2011 model years because power steering may shut off, the automaker said. About 736,000 of the vehicles are in the United States.

Ford said a problem with a sensor could cause a switch to manual steering, making the vehicle more difficult to turn. Ford said it was aware of five accidents involving six injuries related to the steering problem.

Ford told regulators that it was aware of a problem in 2009 and made improvements in the part about a year later. But there was no recall.

Then late in 2011, Transport Canada began an investigation after receiving complaints from owners. At the time, Ford said there was no need for a recall because the vehicle could still be steered. But the Canadian regulators continued to push, leading to Ford's decision to recall the vehicles in both countries.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration website lists several hundred complaints from owners, including at least nine claims of accidents and six injuries.

"The power steering goes out while driving or parked," one owner wrote to the agency. "The car needs to be pulled over and restarted. This is very unsafe."

Another owner said Ford wanted $1,500 for the repair.

There is no indication that the agency opened an investigation, but a spokeswoman said it was monitoring the situation.

The second recall action announced Thursday covers about 195,500 Ford Explorers from the 2011-13 model years, in which a poor electrical connection in the steering could cause the loss of power assist. Almost 178,000 of the sport utility vehicles are in the United States. Ford said it was aware of 15 accidents, which it said took place at low speeds, and two injuries, described as minor, related to the defect, Ms. Felker wrote in an email.

Ford said it began investigating "quality issues" with the steering in summer 2011 after noticing more warranty claims than expected. That fall, the automaker modified a part to fix the problem, without a recall. Then in June 2012, U.S. safety regulators began an inquiry based on owner complaints.

As with the Escape and Mariner steering, Ford said that even if power assist was lost, the vehicle could still be controlled. But the safety agency continued to push for a recall, and the automaker agreed this month.

The third recall covers about 196,600 2010-14 Tauruses with corrosion in the rear license plate lamps that could cause a short circuit and fire. The recall includes about 183,400 in the United States.

The fourth recall covers about 82,500 all-weather floor mats on some 2006-11 Fusions, Mercury Milans, Lincoln Zephyrs and Lincoln MKZs. The mats may have come with the vehicles or been bought from a dealer. Ford is aware of two complaints that the accelerator jammed but no accidents, Ms. Felker said.


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