May 30, 2010

Ford Motor Company May Drop Mercury Brand

A classic car is about to get even more rare. Remember the 1970 Mercury Cougar - a true icon of 20th century American highways? Who would have thought Ford would even consider dropping the brand? Yet, that was the buzz throughout the auto industry last week. From Automotive News to Consumer's Union, sources were reporting that Ford management will consider the proposal this summer as a belt-tightening measure.

The demise of Mercury will mean the end of an era for Ford. From one perspective, it seems like an odd time to make the cut. Mercury was created during the Great Depression as a mid-priced alternative to the more luxurious Lincoln models.

Mercury later developed the now-classic 60's and 70's designs of the Cougar brand. The Cougar GTE was the epitome of a real "muscle car." To this day, devotees roll up their T-shirt sleeves when cruising in those classics. But muscle cars and other "manly" vehicles just don't sell like they used to, as GM learned when it decided to close down Hummer this year.

The numbers only tell part of the story, but it is the part that Ford executives will be listening to come July. Apparently Mercury's U.S. sales took a slow motion dive from more than 500,000 units in 1978 to less than 100,000 units in 2009. That's a free-fall of more than 75%.

Nonetheless, dropping Mercury is not an obvious choice. We at Kemnitzer, Barron & Krieg share the view of consumer advocate and Ohio lemon lawyer Ron Burdge, who notes that there are less reliable vehicles left in the market. Yellow might be a popular color for Cougars, but there are worse lemons in all colors out there on the road.

May 10, 2010

Infiniti Safety Recall for Airbags

Airbags in a car are like the lifeboat on a small vessel. You don’t need them often, but you do need to know that they will work in an emergency. The problem is there is no easy way to test them out, because once deployed they must be professionally repacked.

Several years ago, a man and his wife came into our office. They had purchased a truck advertised to have driver’s and passenger’s side airbags. When their grandchildren came to visit, they looked for a switch (sometimes called a PSIR) that can suppress the airbag when children are present in the front seat. airbag.jpgThere was no suppression switch. Why? Because there were no airbags! Somehow, the manufacturer had engineered the vehicle in just such a way that the airbag did not fit on the passenger side. Oooops. The manufacturer (in that case GM) later argued that it “forgot” to tell the buyers they had left the airbags out. The vehicle could not be modified to add the airbags later. We filed a class action and, in the end, the owners of thousands of vehicles were entitled to rescind and return their trucks.

Learning that the advertised airbags were missing was like tossing a packed lifeboat into the water only to watch it sink instead of float and deploy. Even with airbags in vehicles, it is wise (and required under California law) to buckle up as well for the best protection in a crash. While they should not be relied on in place of seatbelts, properly manufactured airbags do save lives.

The Center for Auto Safety deserves credit for being an early proponent of airbags, and remains a good source of information concerning the variations in safety records of different brands. Nissan has been no stranger to problems in its sudden restraint systems over the years. For that reason, it was not a total surprise today when NHTSA announced a Nissan recall for nondeployment of passenger airbags in 2005-2007 Infiniti cars. See NHTSA Campaign ID Number 10V175.

May 3, 2010

Toyota's Problems Continue

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reported today that Toyota is recalling certain 2003 Sequoia SUVs for a problem in the vehicle stability control system. Should the problem occur, the Sequoia "may not accelerate as quickly as the driver expects,increasing the risk of a crash." You can read the full recall notice here. The Sequoia was Toyota's first full-size SUV, coming out in 2001. Throughout the model lifetime, it has been marketed for families with children and carpool purposes, so even a remote or minor safety concern has serious implications for family use. The model has gone through a lot of changes since 2001, and for that matter since 2003. For the time being, this notice is limited to the 2003 model year.

Like other recalls, this announcement comes from the Office of Defects Investigation (ODI), a department within the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). ODI conducts defect investigations and administers safety recalls to support the NHTSA’s mission to improve safety on the nation's highways. ODI also reports on and monitors the adequacy of manufacturers' own voluntary recall campaigns.
safercarlogo.gifToyota states that it will notify owners. However, most of the affected vehicles are otherwise out of warranty and may have changed ownership several times. For that reason, Toyota may not be able to notify new owners directly. If this applies to you, call the Toyota hotline at 800-331-4331 or go to the NHTSA sponsored website at