The government safety regulator has received 846 complaints about the problem and claims that GM has had 3,489 reports of failure. Of those cases, there have been 16 accidents and 2 injuries reported, according to Automotive News. While NHTSA has been conducting an investigation since September 2011, no recall has been issued yet.
The inquiry's length was brought to light by an organization called the National Legal and Policy Center that alleges GM and NHTSA have known about the problem but are delaying a recall. It has sent a letter to CEO Mary Barra asking "to recall Saturn Ions for the model years 2004 through 2007 without further delay." The letter in question is available in full on the group's website.
GM previously recalled roughly 1.05-million Chevrolet Cobalt and Pontiac G5 models due to a defect in the electric power steering assist motor. It found that a buildup of brush debris and oily material could cause the part to stop working. NHTSA's Office of Defects Investigation says that it was able to duplicate the same failure in the Ion, which is a related model. The automaker issued a service bulletin in June 2012 for the Saturn adding a 10-year, 150,000-mile warranty on the motor, and if it failed it would be replaced at no charge. NHTSA's investigation report can be read below, and the service bulletin can be read here as a PDF. We've reached out to the parties involved for further details and comment, and we'll update this story when we hear back.
Date Investigation Closed: Open
NHTSA Action Number: EA11014
All Products Associated with this Investigation Vehicle Make Model Model Year(s)
SATURN ION 2004-2007
Manufacturer: General Motors LLC
ODI has received 846 complaints and GM identified 3,489 reports alleging sudden loss of power steering assist in model year (MY) 2004 through 2007 Saturn Ion vehicles manufactured and sold by General Motors Corporation (GM). Sixteen of these complaints alleged that the EPS warning lamp had illuminated before or during the loss of steering assist and the increased steering effort contributed to a crash. Two of the GM crash claims indicated that the driver was injured in the crash.
In a previous Preliminary Evaluation PE10-005, ODI investigated the sudden loss of power steering assist in MY 2005 through 2010 Chevrolet Cobalt vehicles. In May 2011, in response to an ODI information request letter for RQ10-004, GM provided ODI with complaint, warranty and EPS system information related to EPS loss of assist for the Saturn ION and peer vehicles Pontiac G6 and Chevrolet Malibu. In that response, GM indicated that the EPS system used in the subject vehicles was the same as that used in the MY2005 to 2010 Chevrolet Cobalt and Pontiac G5. In March 2010, GM recalled approximately 1.05 million Chevrolet Cobalt and Pontiac G5 vehicles (NHTSA recall No. 10V-073) to correct a defect with the EPS assist motor. The defect identified was described as a buildup of brush debris mixed with oily material on the EPS electric motor armature which causes the motor to stop functioning; the same problem identified in the current subject vehicles. ODI has duplicated this failure in both a Chevrolet Cobalt and Saturn ION previously tested at the Vehicle Research and Test Center (VRTC).
In the defect notification letter for the previously recalled Cobalt and G5 vehicles, GM stated that the vehicles may experience a sudden loss of assist that could occur at any time while driving and that if power steering was lost the vehicle would revert to manual steering mode and would require increased steering effort from the driver. ODI believes that, depending on driving circumstances this increase in steering effort could result in some loss of control and a crash.
An engineering analysis has been opened to further assess the frequency, scope and safety consequences of a sudden loss of steering assist in the subject vehicles.