Mercedes-Benz has the lowest recall rate and BMW is quickest at issuing them, according to a study looking at nearly 30 years of federal data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
The study, taken by Boston metro–based car-listing website iSeeCars, totaled U.S. vehicle sales from 15 major automakers and their subsidiaries from 1980 to 2013. To give sufficient time for the initial run of cars to permeate the market, they then compared those numbers against each automaker’s total recalls from 1985 through March 10 of this year as submitted to NHTSA. With simple math, the results rank the automakers by the percentage of recalled cars as compared to their total sales, sourced from Ward’s. Only automakers that sold at least 1 million cars within the 33-year window were included, which excluded Jaguar, Land Rover, and other small, low-volume marques.
General Motors, despite ugly accusations against its “cost culture” from the ignition-switch fiasco, ranked third best, with 65 percent of its total sales subject to recalls, or roughly two recalled vehicles for every three sold. (The study doesn’t include GM’s later expansion of its most recent recall to 2.2 million cars.) Mercedes-Benz was first, with 28 percent, followed by Mazda at 55 percent. By the time you hit Chrysler, Volvo, and Volkswagen, the ratio becomes one-to-one, with Hyundai checking in as the automaker with the highest recall rate.
In terms of an automaker’s recall timeliness—the very point which angered lawmakers over GM’s ignition-switch issue and Toyota’s unintended-acceleration fiasco—BMW was tops, with 87 percent of its recalls conducted during the first three years of a model’s sale. In that same measure, Nissan was second and General Motors third again, both at 85 percent. Mercedes fell to 81 percent and Toyota scored last, with only 68 percent of its recalls performed after the first three years of the earliest named models.
Still, a lower recall rate doesn’t necessarily indicate an automaker is putting out higher quality cars that are more reliable. Nearly every automaker has had major hiccups on new models that may not spread across an entire lineup, and, really, no one is going to claim that a 10-year-old BMW is as bulletproof as a similar-vintage Camry. Automakers, by nature, also try their hardest to avoid recalls, hence the existence of technical service bulletins, lemon buybacks, recall expansions of cars that were previously omitted, “Salt Belt” rules that allow automakers to restrict a vehicle recall’s population, and all sorts of questionable reasons anyone can read on the NHTSA database. Those attitudes might change given the acid bath GM is now taking over its having turned a blind eye to a serious issue for more than a decade.