Thousands of complaints about Saturn power steering issues

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A Scripps investigation has uncovered thousands of complaints about power steering problems involving 2004 to 2007 Saturn Ions.

Records obtained from federal safety regulators show there have been 4,150 complaints about the vehicle’s electric power steering system since 2004.

Drivers criticized about “a sudden loss of steering power” that makes the “wheel difficult to turn.” Many complaints said it happened “without warning.”

The defect is blamed for 16 crashes and two injuries.

Sudden Loss of Power

Kayla Braidic, from northern Ohio, told our sister station WEWS-TV she crashed into a car when her 2005 Saturn Ion suddenly lost power steering. Braidic’s 3-year-old son was in the backseat.

“I tried the hardest I could to turn out of the way and it just hit anyways,” Braidic said.

Federal investigators say “a buildup of oil and debris” in the electric power steering assist motor “may cause the motor to suddenly shutdown.”

In 2010, General Motors issued recalls for two vehicles with the same electric power steering system. GM recalled approximately 1.05 million Pontiac G5 and Chevrolet Cobalt vehicles to “correct a defect” with the electric power steering motor, according to federal records.

But GM has not issued a recall for the Saturn Ion’s steering motor.

Instead, GM sent 2004 to 2007 Saturn Ion owners a letter informing them about the defect and offering to fix it free of charge. The letter also instructs owners “do not take your vehicle to your GM dealer… unless you believe that your vehicle has the condition.”

Will Saturn be added to recall list?

"This is an orphan vehicle. General Motors no longer makes it. They don't need the goodwill of the customer for a car that they're no longer selling so they're much more likely to stonewall a recall,” said Clarence Ditlow, the executive director of the Center for Auto Safety, an auto industry watchdog group.

"Any steering defect… is a dangerous defect,” Ditlow said. "You don't want to have the loss of power steering assist happen on the road.”

"GM should recall this vehicle and replace the electric power steering motor,” Ditlow said.

Scripps investigators reached out General Motors. Spokesman Alan Adler sent us this statement:

“General Motors is conducting a Special Coverage program for owners of 2004-2007 Saturn IONs under which customers can have the power steering motor in their vehicle replaced free of charge within 150,000 miles of the vehicle going into service. The loss of power steering condition is infrequent and is accompanied by a chime and a warning on the Driver Information Center. Typically, power steering function returns the next time the vehicle is started.”

Adler said General Motors investigated Braidic’s crash. The company does not believe a defect in the electric power steering motor is to blame for the accident.

NHTSA investigates

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration opened an investigation into the Saturn Ion’s steering problem in 2010.

NHTSA records say investigators believe the defect “could result in some loss of control and a crash.”

We requested an interview with NHTSA. Spokesperson Jose Alberto Ucles sent us this statement:

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration does not comment on open investigations, or do interviews on the enforcement processes. It is a long standing agency policy.”

Braidic and her son were not hurt in their crash, but she said she feels her safety was unnecessarily compromised.

“They shouldn’t have even had it on the market if a problem like that could happen,” she said.

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