Chrysler and Tesla demonstrate two different approaches to a car recall

Consumer Reports News: June 19, 2013 06:08 PM

Two recalls caught our attention this week: Chrysler agreed to essentially recall about 1.6 million older Jeep Grand Cherokee and Liberty SUVs to retroactively improve rear crash protection, after making headlines for initially refusing a government agency request to do so. A day later, Tesla Motors announced its first-ever recall for a faulty rear-seat latch.

In fairness, automakers issue recalls all the time to address problems with manufacturing, faulty parts, and occasionally design flaws. And recalls seem to be increasing in recent years as safety standards proliferate and automakers take a more proactive approach to fixing problems before they spread.

But the latest recalls offer a stark contrast, not in the quality of the products, but in how the companies philosophically approach customer service. In one, consumer safety advocates have been pushing for a fix to address fire risk in those Jeeps for years, and the company has vehemently denied the cars have any safety problem. After the government investigated and requested a recall for a potentially serious hazard, the company declined. Finally, realizing it was losing the battle of public perception, Chrysler agreed to a "voluntary campaign" for a little more than a third of the vehicles in question. Consumer advocates still aren't happy.

On the other hand, Tesla identified a manufacturing flaw that originated at its factory in May. After 40 days, Tesla CEO Elon Musk announced the recall in an open letter to customers describing the problem in detail and apologizing profusely for any inconvenience. In the nicest recall announcement we can remember, Musk said that the weld had not detached on any car, there have been no customer complaints, and no regulatory agency brought it to their attention. It's worth noting that at this point, Tesla picks customers' cars up by flatbed for any service visit and leaves an equivalent loaner in the customer's driveway (which would be somewhat problematic for Chrysler considering the great number of vehicles in the recall). This recall won't be much of an inconvenience for customers. (Read our Tesla Model S road test.)

To be sure, Chrysler has a lot more at stake than Tesla, with millions of vehicles on the road, not a few thousand, and the financial cost will be substantial. Both companies are keenly aware of the role negative publicity can have on their future fortunes.

It is clear that recalls are a fact of life these days. The upside is that a recall means that a problem has been identified and a free solution is available. That is so much better than an existing problem being ignored, putting drivers at risk. (Search for recalls on your car.)

These extreme scenarios raise the question, when it comes to a car recall, how would you like it to be treated?

Eric Evarts

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