Ignition Switch Recall Straddles Old And New GM

General Motors is at the center of several investigations involving last month's recall of 1.6 million vehicles with faulty ignition switches. The recall comes at a pivotal time for the company.

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General Motors is now front and center in several investigations that have captured widespread attention. The focus is on something plenty of Americans care about: feeling safe when they drive.

Last month, the company recalled 1.6 million vehicles because of faulty ignition switches that have been linked to a dozen deaths. GM has had information about the defect for more than a decade.

As NPR's Sonari Glinton reports, all of this is testing the company at a pivotal time.

SONARI GLINTON, BYLINE: I'm going to read you the list of the cars that have been recalled by General Motors. Chevy's Cobalt and HHR, Pontiac's G5 and Solstice, and Saturn's Ion and Sky - made between 2003 and 2007.

Now the problem is with the ignition switch. And if you have a heavy key chain, it could cause the car to stall and not deploy the airbags. And if you have one of these cars, this is not a recall to ignore - you need to get it fixed.

Jake Fisher of Consumer Reports says this problem says a lot of about GM's past.

JAKE FISHER: It is damning of the old GM. But this isn't the only thing that's damning of that old GM. They were putting out uncompetitive vehicles that were unreliable, and today, they aren't doing that as much.

GLINTON: It's been almost five years since General Motors filed for bankruptcy. And the company and it's CEO's have spent most of that time stressing that they've turned over a new leaf.

Mary Barra, GM's newest leader, was barely on the job when recall surfaced. In her public apologies, Barra has been at pains to separate the old GM from the new.

Larry Dominique is with Truecar.com.

LARRY DOMINIQUE: You know, there still some remnants of the old sprinkled in with the new. You know, you're going to hear a lot of people say well, all of these defective ignition switches were pre-bankruptcy. They were designed, you know, around the turn of the century, they were sold cars that were no longer in production, so they're old designs and so forth - which is true.

GLINTON: Dominique says in order for GM to get ahead of this problem, it has to be transparent with the public and cooperative with the investigations. He says you only need to look to recent history to see how a car company can fare after a recall. For instance, in the 80s, there was Audi.

DOMINIQUE: There had sudden acceleration issues on some of their products and it took that brand 20 years to recover from that.

GLINTON: Then, Dominique says, there was the rollover problem with the Ford Explorer and it's Firestone tires.

DOMINIQUE: That was very public, very visible to consumers, and it hurt them for a while, but they recovered fairly quickly. Toyota, with all of their brand equity, you know, they have those potential sudden accelerations a few years ago and they took a dip very rapidly in consumer perception of their brand, but they also recovered very rapidly as well.

GLINTON: Now, as in other cases, this recall has brought heightened attention to car safety. Safety advocates point to a new study that shows more than 300 other deaths have been connected with the recalled vehicles due to airbags that didn't deploy - though, they haven't been linked to the ignition switch.

Meanwhile, having a new CEO and having come through such bad period may be a helpful to GM, says Scott Oldham with Edmunds.com. He says GM executives have had to learn humility, especially in the last few years. Plus he says, Mary Barra the new CEO, unlike others, is especially equipped for this latest challenge.

SCOTT OLDHAM: You know, her background in manufacturing and engineering is an extremely important knowledge base for someone in that seat.

GLINTON: Oldham says every car company has been through a sizeable recall, and it's been even worse for other carmakers.

OLDHAM: I can't think of an example that a recall has, you know, brought down a car company. As any recall has, you know, tarnished a car company's image, reputation, anything, so severely that they could not recover from it.

GLINTON: What a car company may not be able to recover from is bad management. Oldham says with less than two months on the job, this is the time for GM's new CEO to prove her mettle and show just how new - the new GM really is.

Sonari Glinton, NPR News.

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