NHTSA Investigating Alleged Saturn Ion Steering Problems

Federal safety officials are trying to gauge the breadth of danger posed by a failure in the electric steering system of 2004 through 2007 Saturn Ion vehicles they say could lead to sudden “loss of control and a crash.”

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has gotten about 850 complaints, and manufacturer General Motors received roughly 3,500 reports of sudden loss of power steering in those model years of the Saturn, which GM discontinued two years ago.

Sixteen complainants claimed their vehicle’s electric power steering (EPS) warning lamp lit up before or during the loss of power and the increased effort required to steer contributed to a collision. Motorists were injured in two of the incidents reported by GM, according to NHTSA.

The federal agency’s Office of Defect Investigations (ODI) had uncovered a similar power steering problem in a previous investigation of 2005 through 2010 Chevrolet Cobalt and Pontiac G5 vehicles that were equipped with the same steering assist system as the Saturn models now being analyzed.

The defect was the same in both cases: “a buildup of brush debris mixed with oily material on the EPS electric motor armature which causes the motor to stop functioning,” according to ODI.

GM recalled more than a million Cobalts and G5s in March 2010 to fix a defect with the EPS assist motor.

ODI reports that GM stated in notification letters issued for those vehicles that they could suddenly lose power steering assist at any time and would revert to manual steering mode, requiring more 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,” agency officials wrote.

Insurance industry experts say vehicle crashes can be costly for motorists, not only due to the risks of bodily harm and expensive repair bills but also because of the impact of accidents on auto insurance premiums. If a vehicle defect proves to have been the cause of any of the crashes involving the Saturn Ion, insurers could potentially ask the manufacturer for reimbursement of those claims and reclassify those incidents to clarify that the driver was not at-fault.

About Gregor McGavin
Gregor McGavin is an award-winning journalist who has reported across the country for such publications as The Associated Press, the Arizona Republic, the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review and the Press-Enterprise.

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