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Associated Press

Replacing parts in recalls going slow

Sheer number of GM cars impedes progress

Since General Motors started issuing recalls this year, the phone in Ben Brown’s service department has rung dozens of times with customers wanting to get replacement parts installed right away.

But that’s been a challenge for the service manager at Estle Chevrolet Cadillac in Defiance, Ohio. After 54 recalls, as of Monday, some 29 million GM-made vehicles have landed on the repair list, and the automaker’s suppliers are struggling to churn out all the new ignition switches and other parts dealers need.

“They’re becoming available slowly,” Brown said. “I think they’re releasing them as they’re made.”

Brown’s crew had been able to complete 55 to 60 repairs as of Thursday afternoon. He estimated 100 to 150 people remain on his recall repair list. At this point, most are waiting two to three weeks for an appointment.

“They were patient at the beginning, but they’re starting to lose patience, which I understand,” Brown said.

GM officials last week also announced plans to take a charge of up to $1.2 billion in the second quarter for the cost of recall-related repairs performed during April, May and June. The amount includes a $700 million charge previously announced to cover repairs done during the second quarter.

Since Jan. 1, the automaker has issued recalls on 25.7 million vehicles in the U.S. for safety-related repairs – a company record. GM, which builds vehicles in 30 countries, produced only 9.7 million vehicles last year, or less than half the number it has recalled so far this year. In 2013, all automaker recalls combined totaled 22 million cars.

The recalls include Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra pickups. The models are assembled in Allen County; Flint, Michigan; and Mexico. GM officials said a software glitch can cause the transmission transfer cases to shift into neutral on their own on 2014 and 2015 models. That can cause loss of power, or it can let the trucks roll away if parked.

Estle Chevrolet Cadillac isn’t unique in its struggle to serve customers. Dealers across the country are on the front lines of the GM recalls, working with worried customers who sometimes are left to wonder why the morning newspaper says their vehicle has been recalled but their dealer’s service staff says it hasn’t.

That’s what happened to an 80-year-old Auburn man last month. He’d read in The Journal Gazette that the 2009 Buick Lucerne – his car’s year, make and model – was recalled on June 16. An ignition switch flaw can cause the vehicle to shut off unexpectedly, disabling power steering, power brakes and airbags.

But his local service manager denied the recall was made and said the man, who asked not to be identified in print, would receive a letter from GM if he needed to do anything.

The Auburn car owner wondered whether GM even knew he’d bought the used vehicle about two years ago. After all, the Detroit automaker hadn’t kept its own northeast Indiana dealerships up-to-date on the recall list.

The DeKalb County man isn’t the only one questioning GM’s communications skills these days.

Brown, the service manager, said, “I find out a lot more information off the news than I do from GM.”

Alan Adler, a GM spokesman, explained the recall protocol.

Notifications are sent to dealers slightly ahead of when they are made public, he said last week in an emailed statement.

Tom Kelley, president of Kelley Automotive Group, confirmed that his four GM-related dealerships in Fort Wayne and Decatur are kept in the loop.

The challenge, both men said, is that dealers don’t receive a list of affected Vehicle Identification Numbers – or VINs – for several days. So service staff isn’t immediately sure whether specific vehicles are included.

Because some recalls might include an optional feature, not every vehicle with the same make, model and year might be affected, Kelley said.

For instance, maybe four-cylinder models are being recalled while six-cylinder ones are fine.

That’s why service folks answering the phones might not know right away whether a customer’s car is affected, Adler said.

“The customer’s best recourse is to call the dealer back after a few days,” he said. “In all cases, a customer will receive a first-class letter from GM within 60 days of a recall being reported to the (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration).”

When car owners could be in imminent danger, Adler wrote, “GM takes extraordinary measures – emails, overnight letters, phone calls from dealers and OnStar calls to the vehicle to alert customers of specific actions they need to take.”

GM is able to track who owns its vehicles – even the owners of used cars – by vehicle registrations provided by HIS/Polk, a supplier.

“In addition to the required letter sent within 60 days of the start of a recall, postcard reminders are sent every three months for two years or until the recall work has been completed,” Adler said. “The postcards help GM have the highest recall completion rate in the industry – 80 percent at one year and 85 percent at two years on average.”

Like Estle Chevrolet Cadillac, Kelley’s dealerships are waiting for parts. He estimated that 500 to 600 cars belonging to his customers are affected.

Car owners facing the most serious safety concerns have been provided loaner cars at no cost to them or the dealerships for several months, if necessary. The Detroit automaker even authorized dealers to lease cars from car rental companies if necessary to keep every customer safe and satisfied, Kelley said.

“I think that customers appreciate the responsiveness,” he said.

But the process isn’t necessarily a quick one. When 2.5 million cars need 2.5 million parts replaced, it takes some time to get all those parts manufactured and delivered to service departments, Kelley said.

The Fort Wayne business owner noted that every recall is different, including some that have been issued for what he considers to be exceptionally minor issues.

Kelley won’t say that GM is going overboard on recalls but he – like many others – considers the company’s actions to be “very proactive” at this point.

Brown, the Defiance service manager, acknowledged that recalls are an inescapable part of the auto industry. But it will be good, he said, to get past this flurry of notices and make sure everyone is driving a safe car.

Kelley believes these are the kinds of problems that can help build customer loyalty – as long as GM and its dealers treat customers right.

“When people have adversity,” he said, “that’s when you see what they’re really made of.”