General Motors waited years to recall nearly 335,000 Saturn Ions for power steering failures despite getting thousands of consumer complaints and more than 30,000 warranty repair claims, according to government documents released Saturday.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the government's auto safety watchdog, also didn't seek a recall of the compact car from the 2004 through 2007 model years even though it opened an investigation more than two years ago and found 12 crashes and two injuries caused by the problem.
The documents, posted on the agency's website, show yet another delay by GM in recalling unsafe vehicles and point to another example of government safety regulators reacting slowly to a safety problem despite being alerted by consumers and through warranty data submitted by the company.
A recall can be initiated by an automaker or demanded by the government.
Both GM and NHTSA have been criticized by safety advocates and lawmakers for their slow responses to a deadly ignition switch problem in 2.6 million GM small cars. GM admitted knowing about the problem for more than a decade, yet didn't start recalling the cars until February. The company says it knows of 13 deaths in crashes linked to the ignition switches, but family members of crash victims say the number is much higher.
The Ion was one of a few GM cars included in a March 31 recall of 1.5 million vehicles worldwide to replace the power steering motors; the recall also covered some older Saturn Auras, Pontiac G6s and Chevrolet Malibus. If cars lose power steering, they can still be steered, but with much greater effort. Drivers can be surprised by the problem and lose control of the cars and crash.
In a statement issued Saturday, GM admitted that it didn't do enough to take care of the power steering problem.
NHTSA closed its investigation into the Ion because GM had decided to recall the cars, according to the documents released Saturday.
"This raises more troubling concerns about GM's and NHTSA's actions as well as questions about whether NHTSA has the capability to effectively do its job," said Democratic Rep. Diana DeGette. "I intend to aggressively pursue these issues as our congressional investigation into GM and NHTSA continues."
DeGette was a ranking member of a House subcommittee that grilled GM CEO Mary Barra earlier this month during a hearing on the ignition switch problems.
NHTSA said Saturday it was "actively working to bring this investigation to a resolution" when GM issued the recall.
"Over the past ten years, NHTSA defect investigations resulted in 1,299 recalls involving more than 95 million vehicles and items of motor vehicle equipment, which has helped us reduce vehicle fatalities to historic, all-time lows," the agency said in an emailed statement.
The number of complaints and claims with the power steering issue appears to be high when compared with other recent recalls that were preceded by NHTSA investigations. In March, three recalls -- none of which were GM vehicles -- were issued after two or fewer complaints. There were 29 warranty claims in one case, 263 in another and none in the third investigation. All three cases covered fewer vehicles than the Ion recall.
A search of the agency's database records shows that Ion owners started complaining about power steering failures as early as June 2004, and the first injury accident was reported to NHTSA in May 2007. The owner of a 2004 Ion reported driving 25 mph (40 kph) and tried to turn the steering wheel, but it locked, and the car crashed into a tree.
"Saturn stated the vehicle is not a defect," the complaint said.
Another driver who filed a complaint in July 2010 said that one evening, "midway around a bend, my vehicle's electric power steering went out and straightened my wheel, putting me into oncoming traffic."
"I could have died and killed another driver," said that person, who also owned a 2004 Saturn Ion.
The government does not identify people who file complaints with NHTSA.
Some of the people who complained about the Ion power steering found on the Internet that GM had recalled the Chevrolet Cobalt for the same problem in 2010. The Cobalt is nearly identical to the Ion.
GM spokesman Greg Martin wouldn't comment directly on the Ion power steering Saturday, but pointed out a quote from the company's new global safety chief Jeff Boyer when GM issued the power steering recall.
"We have recalled some of these vehicles before for the same issue and offered extended warranties on others, but we did not do enough," Boyer said in March. "With these safety recalls and lifetime warranties, we are going after every car that might have this problem, and we are going to make it right."
Martin also said GM has created a team that includes safety in the company's product development.