Recalls

NHTSA orders GM to recall 7 million trucks, SUVs after 4-year Takata airbag-related battle

The Chevrolet Suburban is just one of the models caught up in the recall.

Photo courtesy of Chevrolet

No automaker wants to have to recall its vehicles. But, they do so willingly (most of the time) in order to prevent a larger problem from presenting itself. Sometimes the repairs are immediately needed, like when there's an imminent fire risk, while other times they seem like they can be put off a bit, like when a sticker needs to be replaced on a door jamb. No matter the recall, buyers should act as soon as they receive notice of a recall on their vehicle.

Today, it was announced that approximately 7 million SUVs and trucks would be part of a recall regarding Takata airbag inflators. GM has been fighting the recall for four years.

In a statement, General Motors said:

"The safety and trust of those who drive our vehicles is at the forefront of everything we do at General Motors. Although we believe a recall of these vehicles is not warranted based on the factual and scientific record, NHTSA has directed that we replace the airbag inflators in the vehicles in question. Based on data generated through independent scientific evaluation conducted over several years, we disagree with NHTSA's position. However, we will abide by NHTSA's decision and begin taking the necessary steps."

The recall is part of a larger Takata airbag recall that has affected over 60 million Takata air bag inflators in tens of millions of vehicles in the United States alone.

To date, 18 people have been killed by rupturing Takata inflators in the U.S. The inflators have also caused hundreds of injuries, including lacerations and other serious injuries to occupants' face, neck, and chest areas.

The Takata airbag recall was initiated in 2015 when the company entered into a Consent Order with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) recognizing there was an issue with inflators installed in vehicles across 12 different automakers. A Coordinated Remedy was initiated that prioritized and phased the Takata recalls by vehicles most at risk to least at risk.

The automaker has been fighting the recall since shortly after the defect information report (DIR) was submitted, in May 2016. At that time, GM asked that the NHTSA defer its decision on the inconsequentiality of the inflators used by the company until GM was able to complete its testing and engineering analysis in August 2017. That request was granted due to the extraordinary circumstances of the recall.

GM and the NHTSA went back and forth with testing results and clarifications through 2018. A second DIR was filed by Takata in 2017, which triggered another filing by GM, this time a petition for exemption. The process repeated in 2018 and 2019, with GM looking to exempt all but a few of their models from the recall.

Those vehicles are "GMT900" models that contain "SPI YP" and "PSPI-L YD" inflator variants. The GMT900 is a General Motors-specific platform that underpins a number of light- and heavy-duty pickup trucks and SUVs including: Chevrolet Silverado 1500, GMC Sierra 1500, Chevrolet Silverado 2500/3500, GMC Sierra 2500/3500, Chevrolet Tahoe, Chevrolet Suburban, Chevrolet Avalanche, GMC Yukon, GMC Yukon XL, Cadillac Escalade, Cadillac Escalade ESV, and Cadillac Escalade EXT. The petition involves approximately 5.9 million model year 2007–2014 vehicles.

GM undertook a number of weathering, aging, and safety tests as part of its research into the recall. Those results were then submitted to the NHTSA.

According to the filing released this week regarding the petitions, a manufacturer does not have a "statutory obligation to conduct a recall for a defect unless and until it 'learns the vehicle or equipment contains a defect and decides in good faith that the defect is related to motor vehicle safety,' or NHTSA orders a recall by making a 'final decision that a motor vehicle or replacement equipment contains a defect related to motor vehicle safety.'"

It is because of this, that the NHTSA says that, "a manufacturer bears a heavy burden in petitioning NHTSA to determine that a defect related to motor vehicle safety (which necessarily involves an unreasonable risk of an accident, or death or injury in an accident) is nevertheless inconsequential to motor vehicle safety. In accordance with the plain meaning of 'inconsequential,' the manufacturer must show that a risk posed by a defect is not important or capable of being ignored."

GM was up against a steep hill to begin with. Of the three known occasions in which the NHTSA has previously considered petitions contending that a defect is inconsequential to motor vehicle safety, the Agency has granted only one of the petitions. That action occurred nearly three decades ago, in what the Agency refers to as "a vastly different set of circumstances".

GM submitted thousands of pages of research and context to the NHTSA in support of their case as well as supporting testimony from an engineer who is an expert in airbag construction and safety.

Despite the efforts, the NHTSA determined that GM has not demonstrated that the defect is inconsequential to safety in the GMT900 vehicles. A number of reasons were given for the determination including that GM was unable to identify how the unique construction of the inflators in their vehicles made them less prone to rupture, how solar-insulating glass in the large cabin of the vehicles was decreasing the environmental impact on the inflators, and the small sample size of the inflators tested (just 0.07 percent of the total GMT900 population). GM also argued that replacing the inflators exposed owners to risk due to the possibility of improper dealership installation of the replacement inflator.

In its final decision, the NHTA said,

"The defect here poses an unsafe condition caused by the degradation of an important component of a safety device that is designed to protect vehicle occupants in crashes. Instead of protecting occupants, this propellant degradation can lead to an uncontrolled explosion of the inflator and propel sharp metal fragments toward occupants in a manner that can cause serious injury, including lacerations to the face, neck and chest, and even death. This unsafe condition—hidden in an air bag module—is not discernible even by a diligent vehicle owner, let alone an average owner.

"Moreover, nineteen manufacturers (including GM for other populations of their vehicles) have conducted similar recalls of other non-desiccated PSAN inflators. NHTSA has been offered no persuasive reason to think that without a recall, even if current owners are aware of the defect and instant petition, subsequent owners of vehicles equipped with GMT900 air bag inflators would be made aware of the issue.226 This is not the type of defect for which notice alone enables an owner to avoid the safety risk. A remedy is required."

Within 30 days of the date of this decision (November 20, 2020), GM shall submit to NHTSA a proposed schedule for the notification of GMT900 vehicle owners and the launch of a remedy required to fulfill those obligations.

To find out if your vehicle is part of a recall, visit https://www.nhtsa.gov/recalls.

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The Tahoe has three available powertrains.

Photo courtesy of Chevrolet

When I write car reviews, I don't typically say very much about the engine and drivetrain unless there's something particularly interesting or unique about it.

I believe most car buyers don't really care about things like zero to 60 mph times or how many gears a transmission has. Those are features and statistics, and they're an imperfect measurement of an automobile.

I'm a fan of the Good-Better-Best school of cars, and it looks a bit like a bell curve. There aren't any genuinely terrible new cars sold today, so at worst, you're getting something that's Good. I'll call that the bottom 20 percent of the market. Sometimes these cars have engines that really are too weak and should probably be avoided, and I'll mention that in my review.

2021 Chevrolet Tahoe Duramax Diesel Diesel-powered versions of the Tahoe look just like gasoline-powered Tahoes.Photo courtesy of Chevrolet

Then there's the class of Better, or the middle 60 percent. When I review these cars, I'll include a throwaway line about the engine or drivetrain as it's not worth mentioning in depth. They get the job done, but there's nothing to get excited about.

Then there's that top twenty percent where the magic happens. Whether it's the perfect majesty of a Rolls-Royce V12, the throaty bark of a Lamborghini V10, or even the brilliance of a Toyota Corolla Hybrid's effortless 52 miles per gallon — these are engines worth discussing.

And so it is again with my test car this week: the 2021 Chevrolet Tahoe. We've already reviewed two of the Tahoe's sister vehicles, the GMC Yukon and the Cadillac Escalade. Despite being from the same family, they're definitively different branches.

But under the hood of the Tahoe is an engine that is so firmly lodged in the Best category that I can't help but write hundreds of words about it. It's the 3.0-liter six-cylinder "baby" Duramax turbodiesel that was in the works at GM for more than a decade.

It gives terrific fuel economy (for a giant truck, anyway) and fantastic torque in everyday driving. I find it far preferable to the extraordinarily thirsty 6.2-liter V8 that I had in the Yukon and the Escalade and heartily recommend it to anyone buying a GM full-size SUV or half-ton pickup. That's even more impressive because the 6.2-liter V8 is already an upgrade over the smaller 5.3-liter V8 that comes standard in most Tahoe trims.

2021 Chevrolet Tahoe Duramax Diesel The engine is a mighty six-cylinder.Photo courtesy of Chevrolet

It sports 277 horsepower, which doesn't sound like a lot, but horsepower is a poor quantifier of engine performance. Because it's a diesel and because it has a turbocharger, the baby Duramax has gobs of torque with which to pull away from stoplights or accelerate on a hill, or when you're trying to pass someone and you need to accelerate from 55 to 75 mph as quickly as possible.

The Tahoe's diesel engine excels in all these scenarios while delivering an EPA-estimated 21 mpg in the city, 28 mpg on the highway, and 24 mpg combined in the RWD trim that I drove. That's a healthy improvement over the 16 mpg combined from the 6.2L and four-wheel drive-equipped Yukon. It's worth noting that the four-wheel drive diesel fares a little worse, getting 22 mpg combined, but that's still far better than the traditional gasoline engine.

It does all this, and it can even tow up to 8,200 pounds when properly equipped, but most people will never tow anything heavier than a small horse trailer or a boat with their full-size SUV. If you're hauling that much weight on the regular, you've likely opted for a heavy-duty pickup.

The irony of the Volkswagen dieselgate scandal is twofold. For one, some were pulling similar testing shenanigans that Volkswagen was — it's just that VW was the first to get caught. And second, those VW diesel engines were fantastic. They were torquey and excelled in everyday driving, pesky pollution aside.

2021 Chevrolet Tahoe Duramax Diesel Diesel Tahoes are branded with the Duramax name.Photo courtesy of Chevrolet

There's a dirty secret to the horsepower numbers that most carmakers cite: they peak at very high RPMs that average drivers will never reach. But torquey turbocharged engines like this baby Duramax? It generates 95% of its 460 pound-feet of torque at just 1,250 RPM, and then peak torque runs all the way from 1,500 to 3,000 RPM. That means you're in the prime torque band nearly continuously.

In plain English, that means it's way better to drive. It's more fun, it's more efficient, and thanks to all manner of fancy technology, diesel engines aren't weird and finicky anymore.

Yes, you should probably plug it in if you park it outside in frigid weather. But other than that one minor caveat, this diesel is nonpareil.

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The 2021 Audi E-Tron is able to tow a modest amount.

Photo courtesy of Audi AG

Discussing electric vehicles (EVs) today is a funny thing, because the models people are most excited about haven't yet hit the market. That's even more true for EVs with towing capabilities, as electric pickup trucks won't start leaving factory assembly lines until mid-2021 at the absolute earliest, and most are months behind that ambitious timeline. Still, looking at what we can buy today, along with models that will soon be available, we can get a good feel for where the EV world stands on towing.

As we get closer to the end of 2021, we'll start to see even more electric vehicles with respectable towing capacities. GMC has been quiet on the capabilities of its Hummer EV, but its power numbers and size indicate that it'll be one to watch. Ford already towed a freight train with a prototype of its EV pickup, but again, no word on actual numbers. We also know that Chevrolet will roll out an electric pickup of its own, but don't count on seeing the Silverado name on the electrified model.

2022 GMC Hummer EV The 2022 GMC Hummer EV is expected to arrive late this year. Photo courtesy of GMC

It's important to remember that towing capacity is different than payload capacity, which deals with the weight of the vehicle itself, plus any fluids, passengers, and cargo. It's also good to note that most vehicles, even today's gas pickup trucks, need to be properly equipped before they're able to tow anything, trailer or otherwise. Many vehicles, such as the Tesla Model Y on our list, require a towing package, which adds a hitch and other hardware, as well as software patches to handle the strain that towing puts on the vehicle.

Don't get caught up in fancy range and torque numbers, because just like their gas counterparts, EVs will be nowhere near as efficient while pulling a trailer. There's some dispute over whether the outrageous torque claims from GMC and Tesla are real, or an engineering flim-flam meant to tempt an unknowing public.

If you're looking for an EV and need to tow, this is a decent time to be in the market, but the longer you can wait the more selection you'll have. Be prepared to open your wallet for an electric vehicle of any type, however, because most are currently more expensive than comparable gas models. No matter where you end up with your next towing rig, gas or electric, be sure you understand your vehicle's capabilities and your own skill before hitting the road.

Tesla Model Y

Tesla Model Y

Photo courtesy of Tesla

Towing Capacity: 3,500 pounds
It may seem farfetched that an electric crossover could tow a trailer, but the three models on our list that you can actually walk out and buy today are crossovers. The all-wheel drive Model Y is rated at up to 3,500 pounds but must be equipped with a $1,200 tow package, which includes a high-strength steel tow bar with two-inch hitch receiver, a trailer harness with NA 7-pin standard connector, and a tow mode software package. That's on top of the Model yYs ability to carry up to seven people and blistering performance.

Hyundai Ioniq 5

2022 Hyundai Ioniq 5 Photo courtesy of Hyundai Motor Group

Towing Capacity: 3,500 pounds
Like its corporate cousin, Kia, Hyundai is set to debut a surprisingly capable small EV for 2022. The Ioniq 5 brings quirky forward-looking style to the table, along with a stout 3,500-pound tow rating. Hyundai says that the Ioniq 5 will sport a driving range of between 250 and 300 miles, and notes that it will be available with two powertrain options, one that can deliver 215 horsepower and a more powerful unit with 315 horsepower. The Hyundai offers a clean, futuristic cabin with two large driver-oriented screens, and will be available with semi-autonomous driving features.

Rivian R1T and R1S

Rivian R1S

Photo courtesy of Rivian

Towing Capacity: 11,000 pounds
Rivian captured everyone's attention with big investments from Ford, Amazon, and others, but it will also be one of the first companies to deliver an electric pickup truck when the first units land in late 2021. The R1T is a compelling electric truck with supercar acceleration, legitimate off-road chops, and the ability to tow up to 11,000 pounds, which puts it on par with some of the best full-size trucks available today. Making things even better for Rivian buyers, the company's R1S SUV will sport much of the same capability and a towing capacity of up to 7,700 pounds.

Tesla Cybertruck

Tesla Cybertruck Photo courtesy of Tesla

Towing Capacity: 14,000 pounds
The Cybertruck's unveiling press event was weird on a bunch of levels, from Elon Musk's theatrics to a broken window, of all things. But if any of the specs that were laid out at the event and soon after are true, the funky Tesla will be a revelation for people needing to tow heavy loads. Mixed in with a bunch of other eye-popping specs are the towing numbers. In its most basic configuration, Tesla says the traditional Cybertruck will be able to tow up to 7,500 pounds, but in its most capable configurations the truck is said to tow up to 14,000 pounds.

It's important to take a step back for a moment and note that nobody's actually driven or tested the Cybertruck and things could change drastically before it actually reaches the market.

Audi E-Tron Sportback

2021 Audi E-Tron Sportback Photo courtesy of Audi AG

Towing Capacity: 4,000 pounds
Audi's electric offerings range from cushy premium crossovers to red-hot electric sports sedans, and some can tow an impressive amount. The E-Tron Sportback is one, and with the ability to tow up to 4,000 pounds, it can take the whole family, all of their gear, and pull a small trailer at the same time. On top of that, the Audi's interior is packed with upscale materials and useful tech.

Volvo XC40 Recharge

Volvo XC40 Recharge side plug Photo courtesy of Volvo Cars

Towing Capacity: 3,307 pounds
The funky XC40 crossover got an all-electric model a couple of years ago, and though it's small, the Recharge EV model can tow up to 3,307 pounds. The crossover's upright and slightly boxy shape give it excellent headroom inside, and the folding seats inside open up the storage area to a decent 47.39 cubic feet of cargo space. To sweeten the pot, Volvo offers the XC40 Recharge with several desirable feature, such as a panoramic sunroof, a large touchscreen infotainment system, and the latest advanced driver assistance tech.

Kia EV6

2022 Kia EV6 GT-Line Photo courtesy of Kia Motors

Towing Capacity: 3,500 pounds
Despite its name being strikingly similar to a popular band from the 1990s, the Kia EV6 has some serious capability. When properly equipped, it can tow up to 3,500 pounds which is more than enough for a small boat or trailer. That's impressive for such a small vehicle, but the Kia offers more than that, with futuristic looks, an available long-range battery, and an open, airy cabin.

Volkswagen ID.4

2021 Volkswagen ID.4: Exterior Photo courtesy of Volkswagen AG

Towing Capacity: 2,200 pounds
The Volkswagen ID.4 isn't the most powerful vehicle on our list, but it's got just enough capability to get the job done for folks wanting to pull a small trailer or boat. The ID.4's tow rating of 2,200 pounds may not be all that impressive, but its price tag, upscale interior, and clever features make it a compelling choice among small electric crossovers. The ID.4 also gets a slew of advanced driver aids, many of which are standard, as well as a 10.0-inch infotainment touchscreen with navigation.

Polestar 2

2021 Polestar 2 Photo courtesy of Polestar

Towing Capacity: 2,000 pounds
The Polestar 2 lands just under VW ID.4 at the low end of the towing spectrum, with capability of pulling up to 2,000 pounds. Volvo's sub-brand offers plenty of other compelling features for the vehicle that more than make up for the slight lack of towing ability. Polestar says the 2 can accelerate from zero to 60 mph in under five seconds, and notes that the vehicle is built with the goal of being as sustainable as possible in the areas of battery design and manufacturing.

Tesla Model X

2021 Tesla Model X Photo courtesy of Tesla Motors

Towing Capacity: 5,000 pounds
Tesla's funky gullwing-doored crossover is weird, expensive, and surprisingly capable. When properly equipped, the Model X can tow up to 5,000 pounds. It's also blazingly quick, and in some configurations can reach 60 mph from a standstill in just 2.5 seconds. Teslas are also known for their technology, and the Model X is no different. It can be equipped with advanced driver assist systems and comes with one of the largest and most functional infotainment touchscreens on the market today.

Hyundai Kona Electric

2020 Hyundai Kona Electric Photo courtesy of Hyundai Motor America

Towing Capacity: 2,800 pounds
Hyundai's EV offerings are growing in number and sophistication, and no vehicle illustrates that point better than the Kona Electric. The tiny but mighty Hyundai Kona Electric is able to tow up to 2,800 pounds when properly equipped, and with an MSRP that lands well under $40,000, it brings a healthy dose of value to the table as well. Though the Kona isn't offered with all-wheel drive, its 201-horsepower electric motor is strong enough to propel it from zero to 60 mph in a little over six seconds.

Audi E-Tron

2021 Audi E-Tron

Photo courtesy of Audi AG

Towing Capacity: 4,000 pounds
Another crossover. This time from a legacy European automaker with a catalog full of premium vehicles. The E-Tron is powered by twin electric motors with up to 402 horsepower and 490 pound-feet of torque. On top of that, it's got a top speed of 124 mph and a cabin packed with upscale materials. Audi also says that the E-Tron is good to tow up to 4,000 pounds, which is plenty for a small trailer or boat.

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