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Exhaust Notes

Top automotive recalls, catastrophes and lawsuits of 2012

Here are our favorite news stories we covered last year.

By Clifford Atiyeh Jan 8, 2013 10:36AM

At Exhaust Notes, our mission is to cover everything in the auto industry we possibly can, and 2012 was packed.

In case you were in prison without Internet access or lying on a remote island without 3G service, here's our recap of what we consider the most interesting car news of the past year.

Anything we missed? Let us know. Also, be sure check out our recap of 2012's winning and losing cars.


The year in recalls

In 2012, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reported all sorts of catastrophic car failures. We had fuel-tank leaks, engine fires, steering-fluid fires, loose wheel hubs, headlights that didn't turn on, airbag problems and rollaways. No car did worse this year than the 2013 Ford Escape, which was recalled four times.

The weirdest recalls were the window-switch fires that plagued General Motors, Honda and Toyota. In August, GM recalled nearly 250,000 SUVs for power-window switches that could cause a fire in the driver's door. In October, Honda recalled more than 268,000 CR-Vs for switch fires resulting from water contact or spilled fluids. Two days after Honda's announcement, Toyota issued the industry's largest recall in 16 years: 2.5 million cars for -- hot, smoking power window switches in the driver's door.

As if that wasn't enough, Toyota received its fourth fine for failing to notify NHTSA of a previous floor-mat recall in proper time. Toyota also turned out to be the automaker with the most recalls in 2012, the third time it has earned this dubious honor. The company recalled 5.3 million vehicles last year.

Pure electric cars go limp

The electric car didn't die again, but zealous battery companies and the Energy Department got zapped back to reality. U.S. battery companies ended the year with an oversupply, and two of them went bankrupt despite hundreds of millions in federal loans and grants.

Still, there was an all-time flurry of EV launches in 2012: the Scion iQ EV, Toyota RAV4 EV, Honda Fit EV, Ford Focus Electric, Chevrolet Spark EV, Fiat 500e and Tesla Model S, which scored two major Car of the Year awards and a record-setting range. What gives? Most of these new EVs are either barely on sale or restricted to a handful of states in very limited production. Toyota will sell the RAV4 in California only to meet the state's zero-emissions requirements, and then it will likely cease production, just as it did a decade ago. Tesla has delivered only a few thousand Model S sedans, primarily on the West Coast.

Then there were total battery failures on the Fisker Karma and battery-loss problems on the Nissan Leaf, which ended the year with half of its predicted sales. Then the Fisker Karma caught on fire because of an engine-cooling issue, and again caught on fire (along with several Priuses) at a New Jersey port when exposed to superstorm Sandy's devastating floods. Coda, a California EV maker that's trying sell a Chinese-based car, received poor crash-test scores and laid off 15 percent of its employees.

Good news? The Chevrolet Volt more than doubled its 2011 sales to 23,000 cars, making it the best-selling plug-in. 

Technology is here to save us

Google, Continental and Audi all received approval to test autonomous vehicles on public roads in Nevada, the first state to issue special licenses for self-driving cars.


Volvo invented the pedestrian airbag, an exterior U-shaped bag that covers most of the windshield and pops up the hood to better cushion a body's impact.

The federal government suggested it should mandate black boxes in all new cars to record accident data. While many new cars already have the boxes, the new proposal is stirring plenty of privacy concerns.

Smartphone-based in-car applications from BMW, Mercedes, Toyota, Ford and others dominated 2012, offering the ability for a car's infotainment system to communicate with an owner's phone and share all sorts of critical data, like Facebook news feeds. The first infotainment systems to be updated "over-the-air" debuted on Mercedes and Ram models.

When in doubt, sue

Hyundai and Kia were sued for allegedly overstating fuel-economy estimates, after which the EPA found that the companies had actually overstated the numbers on 75 models. The lawsuits are ongoing, but both companies (Kia is owned by Hyundai) are on the hook to compensate owners about $100 million in lost fuel savings for the lifetime of the cars.

Shortly after, Ford was sued for the same thing on its new C-Max and Fusion Hybrid models, both of which claim astounding 47 mpg city and highway ratings that no one, apparently, has been able to reach. The EPA is investigating.

And finally, to end the year on the right foot, Toyota was hit with a $1.1 billion settlement related to its unintended-acceleration misery from 2009 and 2010. The settlement would retrofit new brake-override systems, extend warranties on certain parts and cover owners' "economic losses." That money, however, doesn't count all of the wrongful-death and other personal lawsuits that are still stacked high in Toyota's legal department.

More highlights

Texas opened the fastest stretch of highway in the country, with an unprecedented 85-mph speed limit. (The above photo is a Hennessey Cadillac CTS-V hitting 220 mph on this highway before it opened, with the full backing of the Texas State Police.) The new toll route between San Antonio and Austin was constructed by a private company, which had safety advocates and government watchdogs crying foul. We say 85 mph is just fine, thank you.

The "Right to Repair" bill passed in Massachusetts, making it the first state to require automakers to give all repair shops -- not just dealerships -- access to service tools and information. Automakers and dealerships will truly be scared if the federal bill ever gets passed.

Oh, how could we forget? Maybach began to die, Suzuki's American division went bankrupt and Aston Martin's ownership is now Kuwaiti-Italian. What a year.

Jan 8, 2013 12:11PM
Switches probably came from China where there is little if any quality control, no manufacturers' liability, and zero value for human life. But it's cheap..................
Jan 8, 2013 12:28PM
This right to repair bill is fantastic but sad that it even has to be made, I would like a "right to be able to repair in my garage" it seems every year new models come out that are more complicated than need be, like sealed transmissions on many models and no inline fuel filters on the new f-150, I HAVE to change mine on an 2006 every 60,000 and it takes 10 minutes, NOW do new owners have to take it to the dealership? It seems this is on purpose to not only make money on the sale but follow on cost, eventually the cost of owning the car will be as much as the purchase price every 8yrs. maybe a web site that shows the repair and upkeep of every model throughout its usefulness would be nice and a warning to manufactures.
Jan 8, 2013 3:04PM
My husband and I bought a 2012 Hyundai Elantra back in Feb. We purchased the extended warranty and insurance thinking that would take care of any unforeseen things that might come up... Nope! I researched cars for a year before purchasing this car...I do alot of driving,"20,000 miles in 9 months" so it was important that it got good gas mileage...I mean come on the car got North American Car of the Year...I am lucky to get 28 mpg...The dealership I got the car from said they cannot run the test to check it unless the temp is above 50 degrees...When its below that the car will use 20% more fuel...Really!!! I don't remember that being part of the sales pitch...I guess the $80.00 I get in compensation after 20,000 miles should be good enough right??? I have also had the car in the shop on 4 different occasions, for various reasons..."airbag light, fog light, security system,seatbelt sticks, all of which have been rectified, however, no answers for the crappy fuel mileage and the fact no one can figure out why my rear tires were bald at 15,000 miles...It's a front -wheel drive car people...Oh and I almost forgot, the salesman who sold me the car," said it only needed the oil changed every 7500 miles, which is not true for Nebraska," called me a liar...said I was looking for free work to be done on my car...God help us all if this is what the auto industry is turning into...Buyer beware!!!!
Jan 12, 2013 6:29AM
The Right to Repair bill is not what it seems. It is presented as a law that allows independent repair shops to get access to proprietary information so that they can fix your car. They must pay the manufacturer for that information and pay for the special tools to make the repairs. Sounds fair right? But almost no independent repair shops will buy that information or technology. It's not a good investment for them. But the Chinese Auto Manufacturers WILL buy that information. They will use it to steal the intelectual property of mainstream Auto Manufacturers who developed that technology at great expense. The Chinese will steal it and build clones of real cars the same way they build clones of Rolex Watches. This law sounds like it is leveling the playing field for the little guy. It is really opening the door for Chinese clones of American, European, and Japanese auto technology. It will cost us millions of jobs in the long run.
Jan 8, 2013 2:28PM
Don't forget Nissan's "service campaign," AKA RECALL on brake (ABS) & master cylinder defects/problems on the Altima models...
Jan 11, 2013 6:25AM
Thank you for the info....Wish the service department was that helpful...And yes I do have a eco button, and you are right...It does worse when it is on...
Jan 8, 2013 2:02PM
Jan 9, 2013 4:21AM
I hope that this is being said with a LOT of sarcasm.
"...communicate with an owner's phone and share all sorts of critical data, like Facebook news feeds..."

Jan 12, 2013 1:20PM
The real question is why GM is not recalling all the Cruze turbo because of antifreeze fumes sifting into the passenger compartment. This is a serious safety hazard, with young children being the most at risk.
Jan 13, 2013 10:34AM
I did not say anything about being forced to buy the car...I was however led to believe the car was better than it is... That is false advertisement....I depended on the great fuel mileage when I bought it...I could of got a civic instead... Its the principal you jackball...Don't promise what you can't deliver...You must be a Hyundai employee!!!
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