DETROIT - General Motors (GM) is recalling almost 780,000 older-model compact cars in North America because a faulty ignition switch can shut off the engines without warning and cause crashes.
The company says six people have died in 22 crashes linked to the problem in Chevrolet Cobalts from the 2005 through 2007 model years, and Pontiac G5s from 2007.
GM says the six fatalities occurred in five front-end crashes, all of which happened off-road and at high speeds. In each case, the ignition switch moved out of the run position, shutting off the engine and electrical power, spokesman Alan Adler said. That condition would cause the loss of power-steering assist and power-assisted brakes, he said.
Alcohol was involved in three of the fatalities, and in some cases the occupants weren't wearing seat belts, Adler said.
Dealers will replace the ignition switch for free, but the timing of the recall hasn't been finalized. Until the problem is fixed, GM is urging owners to remove nonessential items from key rings.
People who complain are not identified by the agency, and the cause of the person's problem was not explained in the complaint.
Karl Brauer, senior analyst at Kelley Blue Book, said GM has improved quality in the years since the recalled cars were made. But "this is another example of how potential engineering flaws from the past can come back to bite an automaker," he said.
Just this week, GM scored well in a J.D. Power and Associates survey of owners on the dependability of 3-year-old cars. GM got high rankings for its Buick and Cadillac brands and also won eight individual segment awards -- the most of any manufacturer. Its winners included the Chevrolet Volt plug-in hybrid and the sporty Chevrolet Camaro.
GM's Adler said the problem was discovered when the company got reports of crashes in which the air bags did not inflate. According to GM documents filed with NHTSA, the company knew of the problem as early as May of last year. But Adler said the recall didn't take place until now because GM wasn't able to pinpoint the cause until recently. He also said the rate of complaints was low and wasn't growing.
More than 619,000 of the cars in the recall were sold in the U.S., with another 153,000 sold in Canada and more than 6,000 in Mexico, according to the company. All but 33,000 of the cars to be recalled are Cobalts. The Pontiac G5 is nearly identical to the Cobalt.
Separately, GM said in January that it planned to recall roughly 370,000 new Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra pick-up trucks because of software problems that could lead to exhaust parts overheating and engine compartment fires.
Shares of GM fell 36 cents or 1.1 percent, to close at $35.20.