It's been the kind of year when the total number of recalls almost seemed to match auto industry production figures.

In August, Ford Motor Co. announced it was recalling 3.6 million vehicles, mostly trucks from the 1990s, to fix a speed control deactivation switch. Last spring, Volkswagen started recalling more than 1,000,000 new Beetles from model years 2001 to 2007 to repair a brake light problem.

Even Toyota recalled 533,124 units of its 2004-2007 Sequoia and its 2004-2006 Tundra, citing problems with the lower ball joint on the vehicles' front suspension.

In Pictures: Most Recalled Cars of 2007

In recent years, hardly an automaker has missed out on the recall frenzy. "Now almost any time you pick up a newspaper, there is a recall," said Tom Libby, senior director of industry analysis at J.D. Power & Associates in Troy, Mich.

Even a base price of $168,000 is no insurance against them. Earlier this year, Ferrari recalled 216 of its 2005 and 2006 F430 coupe and spider models after problems cropped up in a clutch pump. NHTSA says the problem "could result in a reduction in a driver's ability to shift gears while driving" and "result in a crash."

So why are there so many recalls if vehicle quality generally rises every year? In part, it's because automakers are using more shared platforms and parts, increasing the chance that a single flawed component could fail on a number of models, experts say. But recalls are also a sign that automakers are going the extra mile to fix problems and keep consumers informed, Libby said.

There is an entire universe of potential culprits. Incorrect signals from a sensor could cause an engine to shut down in traffic. Electrical short-circuits could cause anti-lock brake modules to smoke and burn. An integrated circuit in a dashboard could overheat and set instruments on fire.

Something as trivial as a plastic tag could chafe against a fuel line, and, in turn, create a fuel leak and fire. This was the scenario that led VW to start recalling nearly 58,900 2006 Jettas in August.

This year, DaimlerChrysler has recalled 270,857 Town and Country and Dodge Caravan minivans from the 2005 model year after it was shown that water saturated with road salt could disable some air bag sensors.

Recalls still can be a black eye for a particular make or model. They can confirm owners' suspicions that they bought a "lemon," and it's no secret that some product liability attorneys consider recalls to be ammunition in lawsuits.

"This stuff gets amplified a great deal because there are certain lawyers waiting to use this information, and they are out there actively looking for new business on a class action basis," VW spokesman Keith Price said.

Some recalls involve seemingly intractable problems that probably keep automotive engineers up at night.

In March, Ford recalled 109,664 Crown Victoria Police Interceptors from the 2003, 2004 and 2005 model years after wheels on a tiny percentage of vehicles developed cracks in their welds. Ford was grappling with similar problems on the same scale as early as 2002. Those cracks "can ultimately result in rapid air loss from the tire and could affect vehicle control, increasing the risk of a crash," NHTSA said.

The agency received about 20 complaints about wheels between 2003 and 2005. But an earlier recall on the wheel weld failures took place in 2003, apparently without solving the whole problem. Some of the trouble even involved replacement wheels that Ford offered to help fix the situation.

In one incident, the wheels on a Pennsylvania State Police car "failed during a high speed pursuit, resulting in the loss of control," NHTSA files indicate. The police officer suffered minor injuries.

In a 2003 case, a Colorado police officer complained to NHTSA that a wheel rim on his Crown Victoria split while traveling just 10 miles per hour.

Those troubles came at an inopportune time: For several years, Ford had been trying to fend off charges from police departments that the design of the Crown Victoria and its gas tank added to the risk of a fire during rear-end collisions. In one recall campaign, Ford provided shield kits to police departments to protect the tank.

And no one in the industry has forgotten the most serious product liability problem of the last decade: the tire tread problems that Firestone and Ford wrestled with in 1999 and 2000.

A flawed tire, the Firestone Wilderness AT, led to "approximately 50 injuries and 25 reported fatalities," according to NHTSA. It was mostly used on the Ford Explorer. In 2001, NHTSA ruled the Wilderness AT had a safety defect, and Firestone recalled all the tires of that type produced at its Decatur, Ill., plant.

Chastened by that experience, the industry may now be leaning toward more, not fewer, recalls.

Libby said auto companies are getting out ahead of the vehicle problems. They are more likely to initiate the campaigns themselves instead of waiting for NHTSA to require them, he said.

In many of the recent recalls, "there haven't been accidents, injuries, anything at all," Libby said.

"When it comes to recalls, no manufacturer wants to take any risks," said Price.

Ford spokesman Dan Jarvis describes his company's huge August recall as one example of a voluntary approach.

"It was not a new recall," he said. "Earlier recalls occurred because we were working with NHTSA and they were investigating some under-the-hood fires. But the most recent recall was not in that category. NHTSA did not have a safety concern."

"But we did not want our customers to worry about the safety of their vehicles just because there were some similar parts involved."

Automakers hope consumers will give them the benefit of the doubt. Some experts believe they already do. In any case, Libby says a single recall isn't likely to do much damage to a brand or model.

"About 10 or 15 years ago, vehicle recalls tended to have a greater effect than they do now, because there were fewer of them," Libby said.

The damage can become greater, though, if a series of problems emerges and the bad publicity starts to snowball.

In Pictures: Most Recalled Cars of 2007

"If there is nothing at all on a model, and then there is a recall, then I don't think there is an effect," he said. "But if there is a stream of negative events, then you get a cumulative effect. The recall will play into that stream."


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