When the owner of a recalled Chevrolet Cobalt worried about the potentially deadly ignition switch defect stopped by Spitzer Chevrolet in Amherst on Tuesday, Tom Wolfe, service center manager, said he quickly put him in a free rental car.
“Safety’s a big thing. Especially with Spitzer being a family business and local,” said Wolfe, who said he’s been getting about 50 calls per day about the recall. “If the customer feels at all edgy about driving it, we get them in here and get them out of it.”
General Motors Co. is paying for rental cars for Cobalt owners. GM has recalled 2.6 million vehicles — mostly Cobalts and Saturn Ions — since February due to the defect, which causes the engine to turn off while driving and lose power. Replacement parts are expected Monday.
The Center for Auto Safety, which analyzed National Highway Traffic Safety Administration statistics, said the defect may be responsible for 303 deaths due to airbags failing to deploy. GM disputes the analysis, saying it is too high. The Associated Press has reported the defect is linked to 13 deaths. Others have listed more deaths.
Testifying on Tuesday before Congress, GM CEO Mary Barra was grilled about why GM took 10 years to recall the Cobalt despite at least 133 complaints. Barra said she didn’t know, but “we will find out.”
Local dealers said they don’t know what caused the delay, but their customers’ safety is paramount.
“Primarily, we all drive the same vehicles that our customers drive, so everybody’s concerned all the way around,” said Jim Firment, vice president of Joe Firment Chevrolet in Avon.
Firment said the dealership has fielded a “zillion” calls about the Cobalt recall as well as calls about the Friday recall of 172,000 Chevrolet Cruze cars. The Cruze recall is due to defective right front axle shafts that can separate without warning during normal driving.
Firment said GM has handled the recalls proactively. Firment, a car dealer since 1985, said GM has been far more responsive with dealers and customers since its 2009 bankruptcy and taxpayer bailout.
“They’re doing their best to make up for the mistakes from the past,” he said. “The new GM is not the old GM.”
Greg Pawlik, general manager of Sunnyside Chevrolet in Elyria, agreed.
Pawlik, an auto sales veteran since 1984, said he’s seen many recalls involving different car companies. In most cases, the cars are quickly repaired at the dealership and when there are delays, free rental cars are provided.
“We’ve got a lot of good people in this store who want to do the right thing,” Pawlik said.
Pawlik and Wolfe said GM is not the first car company criticized for recall delays, noting Ford Motor Co. and Toyota Motor Corp. have had problems. On March 19, Toyota admitted it covered up potentially deadly sudden, unintended acceleration problems in many Toyota and Lexus models. It agreed to pay a record $1.2 billion fine.
“Toyota’s conduct was shameful,” U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said after announcing the fine. “It showed a blatant disregard for systems and laws designed to look after its customers.”
In 2007, Ford settled a lawsuit with four states over the Ford Explorer. Plaintiffs accused Ford of marketing the Explorer as safe despite knowing it had a high propensity to roll over and have tread separation on its Bridgestone/Firestone tires. More than 250 people died due to the rollovers, according to the Associated Press.
However, Wolfe said the Ford and Toyota cases are outliers. He said most defects are honest mistakes and car companies make a good-faith effort to promptly recall and repair the cars. By being forthright, Wolfe said GM won’t be hurt long term by the recall.
Wolfe said the man he got a rental car for said he was considering buying a Chevy Impala.
“It might bring customers back to the dealership that we haven’t seen for in a while, start some relationships again, maybe put them in another car,” he said. “Who knows?”
The Associated Press contributed to this story.