General Motors Co. is recalling all 475,000 Chevrolet Cruze compacts, from the first off the line in 2009 through May 31, after reports of engine fires. It's a setback for the Detroit automaker looking to boost sales of fuel-efficient compact cars.
The recall includes 413,418 2011-12 Cruzes in the United States, 61,299 in Canada, and 701 in Israel. Detroit-based GM will modify the engine shield, which will help prevent liquids from being trapped in the engine compartment, where a fire could start and spread.
GM spokesman Alan Adler said Friday the automaker has received reports of about 30 fires in Cruze models — linked to improper oil changes and other fluids that were trapped in the engine.
No injuries, crashes or deaths have been reported in connection with the fires.
The Cruze is a key vehicle for GM. It was the Detroit automaker's best-selling car in 2011 and the second best-selling compact in the U.S. last year. Sales, however, have slowed since Japanese automakers have returned to the market at full strength after natural disasters last year.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in March opened a preliminary investigation into the 2011 Cruze after receiving two reports of engine fires that destroyed the vehicles. It later added the 2012 Cruze to its investigation.
Dave Sullivan, manager of product analysis for AutoPacific Inc., said the recall shouldn't be a big issue for GM, as long as repairs happen in a timely manner for Cruze owners.
"As long as it's a well-orchestrated recall and the dealerships have the parts in place to make a quick fix … it shouldn't really be that big a deal," he said.
Sullivan said recalls are nearly a weekly occurrence and that almost no automaker is immune these days. He doesn't see this recall hurting the Cruze image, though there could be a slight short-term decrease in sales as inventory is fixed.
Vehicle fires are a big issue for NHTSA.
Although the number of vehicle fires has fallen in recent years, the National Fire Protection Association says there were 184,500 vehicle fires, resulting in 285 deaths and 1,440 injuries in the U.S. in 2010. They caused about $1 billion in damage.
"Any kind of recall like this that's getting a lot of publicity is not a good thing, especially any time it causes a fire," said Edmunds.com senior analyst Michelle Krebs.
"That causes a lot of alarm among consumers. It's not good. It's a black eye."
Still, Krebs said the recall won't decimate Cruze sales, which have slowed somewhat.
Cruze sales down
Cruze's U.S. sales fell 13.6 percent in May to 19,613, and sales are down 3.2 percent in the first five months of the year. Overall U.S. Chevrolet sales are up 4.5 percent this year.
Krebs said she expects Cruze sales will be down a little in June, as bargain-hungry buyers may opt for an old Chevy Malibu model before the all-new 2013 Malibu hits dealer lots this summer.
Cruze models sold in other markets have a different configuration — except for 10,000 Holden models sold in Australia.
Adler said no fires have been reported in Australia, and no decision has been made on whether to recall them for the 2011 and 2012 model years.
In a separate recall, GM will call back 53,239 2011-12 Cruze models included in the first recall to assure all welds in the rear compartment were applied.
GM thinks just 0.4 percent — or up to 249 cars — have improper or missing welds to the gas tank.
Customers to get letters
GM says in a severe side crash, a fuel tank with missing welds could leak, which could raise the risk of a fire.
"The most important thing for our customers to know is that we are proactively working to assure the Cruze is the safe and durable car they purchased," said Alicia Boler-Davis, GM vice president of global quality.
GM is sending letters to customers next month that will remind them to make sure, after an oil change, that proper cleanup of excess fluids is conducted.
The Detroit automaker says improper engine oil change procedures on these vehicles can result in the spilling or dripping of oil.
If oil contacts hot engine or exhaust system surfaces, and the engine shield, the shield may ignite and burn, resulting in a possible engine compartment fire.
Modifying the engine shield will take about 30 minutes in a Chevrolet dealership service department and will be free.
Owner letters will be mailed beginning July 11. Inspection for the possible missing welds takes only a few minutes. In confirmed cases, the repair would take about three hours.