How carmakers stack up when it comes to recalls

Porsche averages the fewest recalls and Volkswagen the most. Tesla is the most timely in issuing recalls and Mazda the slowest. These are among the findings of a new study by website iSeeCars.com, which looks at long-term auto company recall performance.

The study used data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration from January 1985 through September 2016 to look at three measurements of a company’s recall record:

  • Recall rate. This is the number of recalls per 1,000 cars sold. That rate can be above 1,000 because a given car can have more than one recall. Volkswagen’s (VLKAY) 1,805 per 1,000 is the highest such rate.
  • Timeliness. This is how often a manufacturer identifies a problem and issues a recall within the first three years after a car’s sale. Tesla (TSLA) got a 100 percent rating here. However, iSeeCars CEO Phong Ly pointed out that Tesla is a relatively new company with many fewer of its cars on the road than giants like General Motors (GM) or Ford (F).
  • Initiative. This measures how often a company issues a recall proactively rather than having NHTSA order a recall. Tesla again tops this list, and Porsche ranks second.

Ly noted that NHTSA has been much more active in the past five years in pushing for recalls, including some very large ones involving Takata air bags and GM’s faulty ignition switches, two defects that have resulted in fatalities. The trends over time have produced some interesting looks at individual companies.

  • General Motors. Despite the massive faulty ignition switch recalls in 2014 -- some involving models seven or more years old like the 2007 Chevrolet Cobalt -- GM has the best record for long-term recall rate and for timeliness among the three large Detroit-based companies. Its recall rate ranked sixth among all companies at 958 per 1,000 cars. In timeliness, it was fourth with 74.7 percent of its recalls coming within the first three years of a car’s life.
  • Ford. Ford’s recall rate was just below average -- 1,139 per 1,000 cars compared with the industry average of 1,115. However, in the period 2012 to 2016, Ford lowered its recall rate 8 percent compared with the previous five-year period. That is third best in that metric.
  • FiatChrysler. Chrysler had the second-worst recall record next to Volkswagen with 1,422 recalls per 1,000 cars. For recall timeliness, it ranked eighth -- just above the industry average.
  • Mazda. Mazda was the worst for timeliness. But, says Ly, this was affected strongly by an ignition switch recall that covered many older models. Overall, Mazda has the fifth-best long-term recall rate at 955 per 1,000 cars.
  • Volvo. Chinese ownership has improved Volvo’s recall rate. Given Volvo’s sterling reputation for safety, its long-term recall rate surprisingly is worse than average, at 1,156 per 1,000 cars. When Zhejiang Geely Holding took over Volvo in 2010, questions were raised about how committed the Chinese firm would be to emphasizing safety. But in the last five-year period under Chinese management, Volvo has cut its recall rate from 1,209 per 1,000 cars to 510. In percentage improvement, that’s the best of any company.

Sometimes a recall crisis forces a company to improve its procedures. “Corporate culture and red tape at GM led to the problems with the ignition switch,” says Ly. “But now a lot of things have been put in place to deal with future safety issues.”

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    Jerry Edgerton, author of Car Shopping Made Easy, has been covering the car beat since Detroit companies dominated the U.S. market. The former car columnist for Money magazine and Washington correspondent for Business Week, Edgerton specializes in finding the best deals on wheels and offering advice on making your car last.