By DANNY HAKIM
Published: Tuesday, July 27, 2004
Suspension Failure on Saturn S.U.V.'s in Rollover Tests Prompts Inquiry - The New York Times
The suspensions on two Saturn Vue sport utility vehicles broke during rollover tests performed by the government last month, causing the left rear wheels of the vehicles to collapse. The suspension failures occurred in separate tests of the two- and four-wheel-drive versions of the Vue, which is made by General Motors.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is investigating why the failures occurred, according to a brief summary of the investigation posted late last week on the agency's Web site. The process often takes more than a year and must be completed before the agency orders a recall, if it so chooses.
In interviews yesterday, consumer advocates called on G.M. to voluntarily recall the vehicles and said that the test results suggested a flaw in their design.
''I can't think of a government test in recent memory that resulted in such a catastrophic failure,'' said Clarence Ditlow, director of the Center for Auto Safety, a consumer advocacy group.
''It's truly amazing that both vehicles had the same failures,'' he added, referring to the similar outcome on both models. ''That shows you there's a design problem.''
Jim Schell, a spokesman for G.M., had no comment on the test result or on whether G.M. was planning a recall, other than to say G.M. was cooperating with the agency's investigation.
More than 200,000 Saturn Vues have been sold in the United States since the models went on sale in 2001, according to Ward's AutoInfoBank.
''They should immediately fix this,'' said Joan Claybrook, the president of Public Citizen, a consumer advocacy group that has backed a Senate proposal to create minimum rollover performance standards for all cars and trucks.
''The vehicle has its own tripping mechanism,'' she added. ''I would urge General Motors to immediately recall these vehicles.''
Rae Tyson, a spokesman for the traffic safety agency, said, ''We've opened a defect investigation,'' but would add little beyond that because the investigation is continuing.
He would not say whether the two 2004 Vue models tested by the government tipped up on two wheels after the suspension failures.
''The test results are still under review,'' he said.
The agency did say, in its investigation summary, that they had received a complaint from a Vue driver who experienced a similar failure earlier this year that led to a rollover. In that case, the left rear wheel of a 2003 model Vue ''bent underneath the vehicle,'' the summary said.
Rollovers have been an area of increasing scrutiny because of surging sales of S.U.V.'s and pickup trucks, which are more prone to roll over than passenger cars because of their higher ground clearance.
This year, the traffic safety agency has been conducting its first rollover tests on a track. Previously, the agency used a mathematical formula, factoring in a vehicle's specifications, to predict rollover risk. Congress ordered the agency to devise a track test after nearly 300 people died in rollovers of Explorers equipped with Firestone tires in the late 1990's.
In the new tests, conducted at speeds of 35 to 50 miles an hour, vehicles are driven through as many as 10 maneuvers known as fishhooks. The maneuver simulates the kind of jarring swerve that might happen when vehicles drift off the road and then the drivers overcompensate while trying to recover.
The suspension of the four-wheel-drive Vue failed at 45 m.p.h., according to the agency's summary; the summary said the two-wheel-drive Vue had ''a similar rear suspension failure'' but did not say at what speed.
Several S.U.V.'s and pickup trucks have tipped up on two wheels during the new tests, indicating an imminent rollover risk. Vehicles do not actually roll over on the test track because they are equipped with metal wings, known as outriggers, to protect the test drivers.
Sales of the Vue were up nearly 17 percent in the first half of the year, according to the Autodata Corporation, as consumers appeared to consider smaller, more fuel-efficient S.U.V.'s in light of higher gas prices.
For G.M., the world's largest automaker, the Vue test results are the latest problem in what has been a difficult year for recall-related issues. The company recalled more vehicles in the first four months of this year than it did in all of 2003, costing it $200 million more than it expected in the first quarter.
G.M. has made strides in quality surveys in recent years, with its Cadillac brand especially thriving in the eyes of its customers, according to J.D. Power & Associates. But long-term reputations for quality and dependability are considered by analysts to be a key reason that competitors like Toyota and Honda spend far less on rebates to entice buyers than do the traditional domestic automakers.
Not that Japanese automakers are immune to recalls, which are increasingly common as vehicles become more loaded with safety and entertainment gadgetry. On Monday, Toyota said it was recalling nearly 130,000 Camry sedans to fix faulty side airbags that might not properly inflate in an accident.
Photos: More than 200,000 Vues have been sold in the United States since 2001. (pg. C1); The left rear wheels on two Saturn Vues collapsed during testing by the government last month. A full inquiry could take more than a year. (pg. C6)