Japan Automakers Recall 3.4 Million Vehicles for Airbag Defect

Four Japanese automakers, including Honda and Toyota, are recalling approximately 3.4 million cars worldwide, due to defective airbags supplied by Takata Corp., the companies said Thursday, that are at risk of catching fire or injuring passengers.

This is the largest recall ever for airbags made by Takata, the world’s second largest supplier of airbags and seatbelts.

Toyota, which is the world’s biggest-selling automaker, said it was recalling 1.73 million cars produced between November 2000 and March 2004, including 580,000 vehicles in North America and 490,000 vehicles in Europe.

Nissan Motor said they were recalling approximately 480,000 cars globally, and said there might be more, while Mazda recalled another 45,500 worldwide.

Takata estimates about two million vehicles use the defective air bag, Mr. Matsumoto said.

Airbags are made of flexible fabric that inflate quickly to provide a cushion to protect occupants in the event of an accident. They were first introduced in the mid 1980s and early 1990s and are now required in vehicles in most countries.

In the current Takata recall, the front passenger airbag may not inflate properly due to a manufacturing defect in the propellant used in the airbag inflator, the companies said. As a result, there is a risk of fires starting or of passengers being injured by metal fragments shooting up toward the windshield or down in to the passenger foot well.

Honda, who announced they are recalling more than 1.14 million vehicles worldwide, said the recall was necessary to replace passenger front airbag inflators.

“It is possible that the passenger front airbag inflators in affected vehicles may deploy with too much pressure, which may cause the inflator casing to rupture and could result in injury,” the company said in a statement.

U.S. requirements were changed in the late 1990s to reduce the explosive force of the airbag deployment due to the burn-like injuries caused in the first generation of airbags.

Most of the recalled vehicles appeared to be from the 2001, 2002 and 2003 model years.

Takata, based in Toyko, has also supplied the faulty air bags to foreign carmakers, said Toyohiro Hishikawa, a spokesperson for the Toyota-listed components maker. The company’s shares tumbled almost 10 percent Thursday. Takata also supplied seat belts to major automakers outside Japan, including Daimler and Ford Motor, as well as to the Japanese brands.

Honda said it was aware of one crash in which a passenger front airbag casing had ruptured after being deployed with too much pressure. Toyota said it was not aware of any injuries or death that may have resulted from the defect. The automaker said there was a risk of fires or injuries because of the flawed inflators.

Honda has had previous recalls, beginning in 2008, for the same problem in driver’s side airbags.

Toyota said it had reports of five airbag malfunctions, but no injuries.

Toyota spokeswoman Shino Yamada said all of the airbags in question were manufactured by Takata Corp, a Japanese supplier in or after 2000.

Takata shares declined sharply after the recall was issued, at one point falling more than 15 percent before recovering to close down 9 percent.

A second Takata spokesman, Hideyuki Matsumoto, said the defect had been caused by problems in the manufacturing process.

In the United States, the Honda vehicles involved in the recall include 2001 to 2003 Civics and CRVs and 2002 Odyssey minivans. Nissan is recalling 2001 to 2003 Maximas, Pathfinders, Sentras, Infiniti I35s and Infiniti QX 4s in the U.S., while Mazda is recalling 147 2003 and 2004 Mazda 6 sedans and two 2004 Mazda RX 8s. Toyota is recalling some 2001 to 2003 Corollas, Matrixes, Tundra pick-ups and Lexus CS 430s. Toyota is also recalling the Camry, among other models, but in markets outside the U.S.

Manufacturers will identify the specific cars involved and will notify owners.

Toyota will exchange the faulty inflators for new ones, a repair that is anticipated to take about an hour to two-and-one-half hours for most models, Mr. Sakai said. He declined to give the costs related to the recall.

“The inflators themselves are not so expensive, but there is the cost to cover for the hours spent to fix the problem,” said Kohei Takahashi, an auto analyst at JP Morgan in Japan.

General Motors is planning to recall an estimated 48,000 Pontiac Vibes. The Vibe was made in the same factory as the Toyota Matrix, and the two vehicles are virtually identical.

BMW also used the same airbag inflators in some of its cars, according to a document Takata sent to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. BMW did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

The recall, while it is large, is not without precedent. The U.S. alone has had 13 recalls of more than three million units, according to a list maintained by the D.C.-based Center for Auto Safety.

This recall is not welcome news as far is Toyota is concerned since they recalled close to 19 million vehicles worldwide from late 2009 to early 2011.

Toyota announced a recall of about 7.43 million cars due to a power window problem that posed a fire risk.

But their largest recall came in 2009 and 2010, when more than 8 million units were brought in for a potential problem involving sticky accelerator pedals. In that case, dealers were told to suspend sales of eight models, and production of those models stopped temporarily.

“The huge recall is expected to generate a good deal of unwelcome attention, particularly for Toyota, as it strives to rebuild its reputation for quality in North America,” IHS Automotive analyst Paul Newton said in a report.

This is the largest recall for Takata since 1995 when the company was involved in a recall of more than 8 million vehicles because of defective seatbelts.

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